Railing about utter stupidity.

Metro Light Rail (testing)

Image by CWaterhouse via Flickr

And I’m talking about commuter light rail.

In the world of government foisting stupid economic decisions off on tax payers who are clueless, nothing will ever top light rail.  In the interest of full disclosure, I ride the Phoenix light rail system every day and it’s a great ride.  I also happen live and work within walking distance of the line, something that probably 2% of Phoenicians can say.  And while it happens to work great for me right now, it’s still a fools errand.  Rail systems are rife with what would be called fraud and whole variety of other names that define serious criminal behavior if it was fronted by private enterprise instead of the government.  Kind of like social security.  I’m going to discuss two systems today, the Phoenix Metro Light Rail which is currently in operation and is expanding, and a new light rail system that is being proposed for Metro DC.  I’m not going to talk about other existing systems and the disasters they are – Miami and LA for two – nor am I going to discuss the Harry Reid memorial high speed rail plans, which make commuter light rail look like the bargain of the century.  You can look them up yourself if you have a really strong stomach or a large pantry of alcohol.

Things like cost overruns.  Remember all the screeching from The Left about military cost overruns on stuff that can’t really be predicted, like war?  Well, they’re curiously silent about cost overruns on stuff that is really straightforward, like rail line construction.  Oh, and operation.  And then there’s those pesky estimates of ridership.

So, with respect to the Phoenix system, the first phase of it encompassed a 20 mile stretch from kinda North Phoenix past the airport, through Tempe (ASU) and on to Mesa.  For those not familiar with Metro Phoenix, it’s essentially Maricopa County, home to almost 4 million people, it’s larger than at 24 states and is not a commuter friendly place.  It’s an hour’s drive on a weekend from one end to the other, make that two hours during the week and there is no real central corridor for business, there are business parks spread at random through the county.  That means, unlike major eastern metro areas where people live in concentrated areas of housing and work in business concentrated areas, Phoenix housing and business is spread all over the 9,200 square miles of the county making a fixed rail transportation system inefficient because there is no centralization to build from.

OK, so let’s look at the construction of the Phoenix system.  The initial cost estimates for Phase I were touted by the mayor to be about $500MM for 20 miles of track, stations and trains.  The cost came in at $1.4B.  That’s an oopsie.  Now to be clear, there are no tunnels, no bridges, just ripping up streets and laying rails and putting electrical towers along the line to power the trains (yes Virginia, they’re eco-friendly non-fossil fuel vehicles).  The trains were bought from a German firm who bid on the contract.  There’s nothing unique or difficult here gentle reader but the government agencies who figured the initial cost – like maybe to sell the project to an unsuspecting public – missed it by a factor of about three.  Oh well, it’s federal money, not “ours”.  Well, sort of.  The feds paid for half.  Phoenix and Mesa paid for 40% and a Prop400 sales tax for “transportation” paid for the rest.  So, for those of you who don’t live in Phoenix, thanks suckers.

So much for construction.  Let’s talk about operating cost.  Keep in mind that Phoenix bought the trains from a German firm that sells these critters all over the world.  Not a new design and no fancy stuff, just off the rack train cars.  They have electric motors and run on a fixed schedule, no joy-riding or taking side trips.  Should be fairly easy to calculate the operating cost right?  Ahhh, nope.

Unfortunately, it took massive energy bills to learn the lesson. Metro spent $1.2 million on power in its first six months of operation. That is 40 percent more than projected.

But fear not, the government has the situation well in hand. They’re going to turn up the air conditioning to 78 degrees. That will fix everything. No discussion of the fact that a three car train (most are two) uses about the same amount of electricity for one run as it takes to keep a 20 story office building open for one day. Trains run every 10 minutes.

As to who actually pays to operate the system, you’re gonna love this. Keep in mind that this estimate was prior to actual start up and costs have increased both significantly and, of course, unexpectedly.

The bulk of the operations budget, more than $159 million, comes from fares and cities. That money goes to everything from taking care of trains to paying the salaries of train operators to running Metro’s office.

Fares are expected to account for $44.81 million during the next five years.

Got that? The folks who ride (me) are paying about 30% of the operating cost. The rest comes from city and state taxes. And TARP when you can get it. Bottom line, while the construction cost overruns are criminal, they are at least one time hits. Big hits, but only one time. The operating cost is where they really nail you. Kinda like the cost of retirement for a city employee. They underestimated the operating cost and typically overestimate ridership. And when a “special” tax is collected, the revenue is almost always less than was projected as is the case for Prop400. Bottom line, city property tax payers get hammered and the fools go looking for “other” sources of revenue to support the white elephant that is firmly in place.

Now then, a quick note about the Metro DC boondoggle from the Washington Examiner.

What if they built a $6 billion Metrorail extension and nobody came?

That’s not just a rhetorical question. Last week, the Federal Transit Administration announced advanced payments for a number of its New Starts projects. On the list was Dulles Rail, which will be receiving $19.7 million (out of the total federal share of $900 million) for Phase 1 — an 11.7-mile Metrorail extension now under construction, which will run from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

According to the FTA’s own press release, “The extension is projected to serve 85,700 daily riders by 2030, including an estimated 10,000 new daily transit riders.”

Since Phase 1 of Dulles Rail will cost a minimum of $3.1 billion, that comes out to $310,000 for each new rider. Taxpayers would be better off financially giving each of them a brand new Lamborghini Gallardo (MSRP $237,600) or his and hers matching Tesla Roadsters (MSRP $109,000) instead.

Remember our comment about a criminal job of estimating to sell a project to unsuspecting tax payers? Get this…

First, the Silver Line is supposed to entice tens of thousands of commuters to leave their cars at home and take Metro to work at Tysons Corner, the nation’s 12th largest job center. But the latest FTA ridership projection does not reflect a major shift from cars to mass transit.

Second, that 10,000 figure is just a third of the estimate contained in the 2004 Dulles Rail Environmental Impact Statement, which predicted at least 29,100 new riders. This means that the Fairfax Board of Supervisors approved much higher densities around the four Tysons Corner Metro stations based on what now appears to be an erroneous assumption. And if only a third of the expected increase in new ridership materializes, only a third of the projected benefits of Dulles Rail will be realized.

Third, the latest new ridership figure is even less than the 13,600 new daily riders projected by 2020 for a 23-mile bus rapid transit project that was initially submitted by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation in November 2000, but later abandoned in favor of heavy rail even though Metrorail will cost taxpayers $288,875 more for each new rider.

Read the whole article if you have a strong stomach or alcohol left from phase one. Bottom line, we didn’t even get kissed. I hope Darryl Issa has time to look into this, or at least I hope somebody makes time to look into it. And the high speed rail fiasco. And, a strong stomach or alcohol will not suffice for that link. You’ll need hard drugs.

  1. Art Chance
    December 31, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Rail lines have always been a shaky thing. From the 1830 until about WWI, depending on the part of the Country, investing in railroad construction was a surefire way to transfer money from one guy’s pocket to another with little to show for the transfer. A few big, highly consolidated freight lines have been about as profitable as a commodity product can expect to be; the rest of the thousands of railroads formed or built in the US are on the ash heap of history.

    The UP would never have made it on rail traffic alone; it took the alternating sections and the natural resources, especially the coal, to make it profitable. Now UP and SP are a consolidated line. Likewise, the northern transcontinentals couldn’t make it independently. Burlington, Great Northern, and Northern Pacific are all consolidated now. Likewise, all of the hundreds of railroads in the Eastern US are now consolidated into three or four big freight haulers.

    I rode Amtrak or a state analog from Boston to Bridgeport, CT a few years ago on what was once New Haven right of way. There isn’t enough money in the US to build that stuff today; finely finished stonework on every tunnel and culvert, moulded iron work on the catenary, all those little “touches” that were expected in the 19th Century. But today it is a rusting away mess traversing an economic and sociological wasteland and there is NO money in that part of the World to maintain and replace it adequately. It is publicly run so the help is surly and slovenly. I was going to Bridgeport for the christening of a new ferry being built there – stupid Democrat decision – and I remarked to one of my staff travelling with me that the railroad and our ferries had one thing in common: they could lose money on a bar. The train died for some reason and we were sitting in the middle nowhere waiting for it to be fixed or another locomotive to come fetch us. Now what would people stuck with nothing to do want to do? Eat and drink maybe? So, the brilliant employees closed the bar and restaurant because they had a rule somewhere that said they only operated when the train was in motion.

    In any event, passenger airlines barely make money and they’re far more efficiently run than publicly owned railroads. A passenger railroad will NEVER make money. That said, I sure do miss them! The old Southern Railway “Southern Crescent” from Atlanta to New York was about as good as travel got in the third quarter of the 20th Century; real linen, real silver, real service. Catch the Crescent at Brookwood Station in suburban Atlanta, have a nice dinner in the diner, drinks in the club car, a good nights sleep in a Pullman berth, a nice breakfast and you were in NYC about noon. Or you could get up at three AM drive 40 miles or so to Hartsfield, deal with the airport, spend a couple of hours in a noisy aluminum cigar tube, try to get from LaGuardia or Kennedy into town, and be in Manhatten at about noon. You pick it. But the labor costs killed it, just liked they’ve killed anything resembling service on the airlines.

  1. December 29, 2010 at 12:50 pm

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