Saturday, May 19, 2007

NYMTA's new approach is congestion

New York City NY - The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is adopting an old concept for trying to improve public transit service. The Villager reports on the MTA's use of bus "bulbs" to facilitate the flow of bus traffic in the city.

In theory, bus "bulbs" should allow for a faster flow for buses by allowing them to pick up and discharge passengers without having to get out of the traffic flow. In reality, bus "bulbs" tend to create more traffic congestion without really speeding up the service.

The reality is what is happening along Broadway in the Big Apple. The bus "bulbs" are also generating many complaints from residents and businesses in the area. The only ones who seem to like them are the MTA brass, city officials and mass transit advocacy groups who claim the bus "bulbs" reclaim the street from cars and gives it to the buses and pedestrians.

Like many things related to public transit, bus "bulbs" have their place but often are not properly utilized. "Bulbs" technically narrow a street and space that was once used by trucks unloading at businesses will move to the street from the curb when that is all that is available.

Pittsburgh has one as well from the time when South Hills routes still used Oliver Avenue. After placing the bus "bulb" in, the buses faced a much harder right hand turn as well as more problems with vehicles in a legal loading zone because of the narrowing of the street.

Bus "bulbs" do work well in residential areas with lower volumes of traffic but transit planners love to place them in already congested areas rather than where they would work best. The idea is to keep the bus in the traffic flow to speed the ride but as I mentioned, the reality is that is just makes a congested area even more congested which ultimately slows the service down as buses behind are slowed down as well. When all is said and done, everything is slowed down by the incorrect usage of what should be a valuable transit tool.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Study shows how SEPTA effects the surrounding economy

Philadelphia PA - A report on the site tells of a study done by The Economy League which seeks to show how massive service cuts by SEPTA will effect the economy and traffic in the greater Philadelphia area. While I am somewhat dubious of the "worst case" scenario painted by the study and news report, it does show how transit is intertwined with the regional economy.

The real effect will be on jobs. Without an effective transit system, major employers will not come into the area. Also, some existing employers will pull out due to not being able to get people into work.

Traffic will increase, property values will drop and SEPTA will go into a death spiral of increased fares, lower ridership and less service in addition to the effect on jobs.

Too often, the general public and the politicians fail to understand the important link of public transit on the area economy until it's too late. Even employers are often dense when it comes to the link.

Transit is important to the regional economy and needs to be funded properly. Cutting service because politicians won't allow it to be funded properly effects much more than a small segment of the population that is dependent on the system.

As the Economy League study shows, public transit effects many more things than most people believe. Public transit is perhaps one of the top 5 items to effect the regional economy. It is tightly interwoven into the economy and to decimate the a transit system due to improper funding will only result in cutting ones own throat. In Pennsylvania's case, the politicians are cutting their own throat by ignoring the transit funding crisis. When companies pull out of the cities and even the state for greener pastures, the politicians will be left with failing cities that will hurt the state in the long term.

While the importance of public transit does not give a green light to wasteful spending by transit systems, *cough* PAT *cough*, transit systems need to be properly funded with a reliable source of revenue. Without proper funding, the doomsday scenarios presented by this study and various transit systems will happen.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Houston forced to switch LRT plans to BRT

Houston TX - Due to over-zealousness in trying to get rail, the Houston Metro is being forced to go with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) over the much more expensive Light Rail Transit (LRT) system it had planned on. The KPRC-TV2 website reports on the change.

The primary reason is something I have long complained about, greatly inflating the projected ridership numbers to get funding. Now that the current line isn't meeting projections, the Feds are slashing the amount of available money to Metro on their rapid transit expansion which has forced them to take a more subdued approach to rapid transit and that is with BRT.

Houston is planning on doing this right however they are jumping the gun a little bit. The line will be constructed to accommodate LRT at a later date if the ridership numbers warrant the changeover. While Houston doesn't need to go as far as laying tracks on the bus-only roadway, it will as a symbolic gesture to show voters that it wants to get rail going as soon as it can.

The rail installation will actually cost more in the long term as 10 years from now, it will have to be dug up and new track installed. Pittsburgh did similar and all the prep of pre-laying streetcar rails was wasted as the tracks had to be ripped up and new tracks installed on the Palm Garden bridge. Houston should design the BRT line to accommodate LRT in the future but not waste money on adding tracks until the tracks are in fact needed.

This change from LRT to BRT is already causing a stir. Houston attorney Andy Taylor says the switchover is illegal and goes against the wishes of the Houston voters. I'm sure he's already prepping a lawsuit to force rail to go through even though it would mean a loss of the Federal funding since the Feds will not pay for a rail line in Houston now. In other words, rail or nothing and if a lawsuit is successful, it'll be nothing.

While I'm not going to really go into my thoughts regarding the legality of switching from LRT to BRT, I will say this. The original line should have been done as a BRT and switched over at a later point in the future if ridership warranted as the current rail line is lackluster at best. Metro blew it by vastly over-estimating the projected ridership numbers and now that projection has come back to haunt them.

This is a good sign that the Feds are at least starting to realize that cities are greatly inflating the projected ridership numbers to get rail funding when they can't really justify the line. Hopefully, Houston won't be just a single odd occurrence of fiscal discipline by the Feds and other cities that are planning rail with greatly exaggerated projected ridership numbers will be called on it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Can BRT find respect?

Washington DC - The Cox News Service reports on the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) advocates attempts to break through the pro-rail lobby and get noticed.

It won't be easy to do given the government's support of Light Rail Transit systems in the tune of $18.2 billion dollars for FY-2008. By comparison, the Feds are only planning on spending $1.4 billion during the same time period on BRT.

Construction and engineering firms are pushing hard to keep rail projects at the head of the line simply because they stand to make much more money off of a government contract for rail than they would for a BRT line. These firms, added with the various pro-rail advocacy groups have formed a very strong alliance which literally stifles BRT proponents.

Successful BRT operations are often overlooked and even ridiculed by the pro-rail lobby in the attempt to ram rail through. Thee pro-rail lobby also take rider complaints on BRT operations and literally blow them out of proportion while burying the exact same rider complaints on rail operations as though the complaints were without merit.

I have long advocated for a two-tier method for rail lines due to so many cities that can't even run a bus system trying to hop on the rail bandwagon. This two-tiered method would require cities that insist on having rail to build a BRT line first to justify if a much more expensive rail line is warranted. If the BRT is successful after 10 years, the line could be easily converted to rail use. If not successful, billions of tax dollars could be saved.

The right of way for rail would be secure and much of the development costs would already be done through the BRT project although the transit loving environmentalists have succeeded in getting things changed already so that much of the work would have to be repeated to help drive up the cost.

Pro-rail advocates I know hate my plan. Why? Because they are afraid that the BRT line wouldn't generate the ridership required to convert the line to rail. They are well aware that the vast majority of new rail lines being planned aren't being designed for transportation but strictly for development purposes and therein lies the rub.

The vast majority of rail startups aren't designed for transportation and if the route being used for development has to prove itself before being converted to rail, the number of rail startups would drop dramatically. The pro-rail crowd can't have that.

The Orange Line in Los Angeles, the EmX line in Eugene and don't forget Pittsburgh's 3 busways are among the BRT successes in the United States. In Pittsburgh, even with the Port Authority's ability to mess up a one car funeral, they haven't been able to royally screw up the BRT operation on the busways (yet).

The article also mentions one of the pro-rail crowd's favorite arguments about the safety of LRT over BRT. That's a red herring if I ever saw one. I can easily shut that argument down by saying one word, Houston. Houston Metro was trying for the record of the most unsafe rail operation in the world with several accidents each month for several years after it opened.

BRT is also much more flexible than rail operations. Buses can get around problems on the line while LRV's and streetcars must sit and wait, disrupting the entire operation. I rarely see in the news a story regarding major delays along a BRT line yet daily there are articles regarding major delays on rail lines due to power outages, derailments, maintenance, etc.

The bottom line in all of this is that transportation is taking a bigger and bigger chunk of tax dollars to build, run and maintain each year. While rapid transit is important, it needs to be done with cost in mind. The build it and they will come philosophy of rail advocates just doesn't cut it, especially when most new rail lines are being built strictly for development and/or political legacy purposes. Rail needs to be built where it will work for transportation and unless a rail proposal is forced to prove itself, rail will ultimately price public transit out of existence.