Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Hartgen the Hitman: Charlotte

There was an article in yesterday's observer written by professor emeritus David Hartgen about why Charlotte shouldn't continue on with the Space Race. Well let's go over the reasons why he didn't do his research and got all the facts wrong. For shame, but not unexpected from someone who has written papers for the uber libertarian road warriors at the Reason foundation.

Let's dissect shall we?

You asked me to state the basis of my concerns about continued funding for light rail corridors in the Charlotte region. My concerns are based on the following observations:

The key transportation issue is traffic congestion, not "choices." The county grew 36 percent in the 1990s and 19 percent from 2000 to 2006, and population will increase 300,000 by 2030. Most newcomers will drive. Congestion will double, to Chicago-like levels, even if the current plans are built. This threatens job access.

No one ever said that road construction was going to stop, nor does transit ever seem to lower congestion, mostly because of induced demand, where people will use a free service until it is all used up. This happens with roads. If everyone moved to transit, then others would find that the roads were wide open. So for example on the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis there were 34,000 riders taken off the road in q3 2006. Since 40% of riders are new to transit, that would mean around 13,600 cars were taken off of the road, but that space will be taken up by other drivers who find the space.

Transit system costs are high and out of line with use. The 1998 vote was based on a $1.1 billion plan; now the estimate is $ 8.9 billion. Of the region's $12-13 billion transportation budget the transit system would consume two-thirds but serve just 2 percent of commuters. The other 98 percent will stew in congestion....

This has nothing to do with the specific plan, but more to do with inflation and materials costs. From almost 10 years ago when the plan was passed, costs have surged. The producer price index has gone up 28% between 1998 and 2006 while the consumer price index has only gone up 23.6%. This is a lot. Also, the roads in Charlotte have been developed at a cost of billions upon billions of dollars over the last century and costs for those roads today are high. Houston's I-10 expansion has been hit by the same type of cost increases, yet you don't hear the libertarians crying over that one.

... Even if the transit forecasts are to be believed, transit's effect on congestion would not be noticeable. The transit share will be only 2-3 percent of work trips, and 1-2 percent of regional travel, too small to affect even corridor congestion. Far from providing "a choice," the system would do little for most commuters.

The 2% of commuters has been debunked many times. In fact, the trips he is referring to are all trips including truck trips and trips that aren't served by transit in rural areas. On corridors where transit is available, the commute trips are more competitive between 22% and 40%. This is obviously meant to mislead the public into think that transit is ineffectual where if it were deployed on all corridors, it would do almost half the work on them. The Big Dig takes less than 2% of trips but many people at the Reason Foundation see it as something that should be done in more urbanized areas.

Rising densities will increase congestion, not reduce it. Most growth will go to the edge of the region and to nearby counties, not to transit corridors. While a higher share of work trips will be by transit, the remainder will use the street system, adding to congestion. Cities with high transit shares (New York City, Chicago, Washington, etc.) have worse, not better, congestion.

As places grow, they get congested. Now imagine New York, Chicago, Washington DC etc without transit? If all of those 100s of thousands of people got out of the trains and into their cars, the region would be in a world of pain when it comes to congestion and carbon emissions. This is a ridiculous argument. No city has built its way out of congestion, its what comes with cities, transit is a way to mitigate that by providing predictable travel times and an alternative to sitting in the congestion that built up on that brand new freeway.

Areas our size exclusively operate bus service, not light rail. Austin, Columbus, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Orlando, Hartford. Syracuse and Rochester all have bus-only service. When the South Boulevard Line is completed, Charlotte will be the smallest city in the U.S. with a LRT line (excepting a two-car line in Little Rock).

This is a flat out blatant lie. The city of Charlotte is larger than light rail cities Denver, Seattle, Washington DC, Portland, Sacramento, Cleveland, Minneapolis etc etc. And if we are going by Metro Region, then Charlotte(24) is bigger than Portland and Salt Lake City while slightly smaller than Sacramento and Pittsburgh! Birmingham and Rochester are in the 50s versus Charlotte at 24. Research Professor?

Many cities much larger than Charlotte also rely largely on buses. Kansas City, Detroit, New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis and Louisville have bus-only systems. Buffalo, San Diego, Sacramento, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and Salt Lake City have just one LRT line each. Our present and future densities do not warrant transit.

All cities rely on buses, and 68% of the tax in Charlotte is used for Buses so cutting the transit tax would take out a lot of the transit capacity. But buses serve a different role than light rail. Systems are for different functions and buses are feeders to the longer haul operations of light rail which are cheaper per passenger mile. He also didn't do his research on each of these cities. New Orleans had three streetcar lines(Canal, St. Charles, Riverfront), San Diego has three operating lines(Green, Blue, Orange), Sacramento has 3 operating lines(Watt, Folsom, South Corridor), Minneapolis is planning three more lines (Central, Southwest, Northwest),and a streetcar system, Baltimore has heavy and light rail as well as commuter rail, Houston is planning 5 new rapid transit corridors to go with its light rail line, Dallas has 2 light rail lines and is building two more to go along with its commuter rail, St, Louis has 2 lines, and Salt Lake City has 2 lines and is building 4 more and commuter rail. EVERY CITY HAS MORE THAN ONE LINE and is planning for a massive expansion.

The recent UNCC study inappropriately compares Charlotte with larger cities that have light rail service. Since those cities have generally higher transit operating and construction costs, the comparison is not appropriate. The report should have compared Charlotte to other mid-sized bus-only systems.

Charlotte isn't a tiny town anymore. It will grow to be larger, and in ten years time, many of those systems which were bus only are going to have rail. I don't know if I would want to aspire to be any of the bus only systems he mentions. Mid-sized cities are ranked in the 50s, not the high 20s.

What should be done now?

Repeal the transit sales tax. Operate the South Boulevard light rail line but build no more. Instead, focus on express transit and improve bus service. Add point-to-point service with smaller vehicles. Implement a "fair fare" policy that riders pay no less than 25 percent of costs. Review route performance. Contract out services. Use higher fares, federal operating assistance funds, and local funds budgeted competitively; transit should not have a dedicated fund source.

Basically they say put it on the backs of working people, while they build more roads. This does nothing for the budgets of families that often pay more than 20% of their incomes for transportation. Transit is a way to reduce this cost but they want you to buy more cars and gasoline. Why shouldn't transit have a dedicated funding source? There is no reason why there shouldn't be a funding source to pay for transit when there is a funding source for roads. Transit is an important part of a region's economic competitiveness, if it is neglected, the region will suffer.

Make congestion relief the primary concern. Like Atlanta, set a goal for congestion reduction, and select projects accordingly.... Increase funding: about $4 billion more is needed to hold congestion at current levels.

Oh yeah, Atlanta the king of congestion where they want to build a tunnel under the city for all the cars is a great act to follow. Charlotte has been the envy of cities wanting such a transit network as is planned there yet they want to be more congested and auto oriented like Atlanta? Give me a break. And San Francisco should be more like Houston right? $4 billion to hold congestion at current levels? You mean he can't solve the problem and reduce congestion with roads? This is what they claim can't be done with transit yet they can't do it with roads either, and when they do it with roads, it is going to result in libertarian's nightmare of takings galore for the expansion of the freeway, yet they don't care.

Redirect the region's focus to roads. Remove bottlenecks, improve signal timing and add arterial turns. Consider HOT lanes (high-occupancy-toll lanes on freeways) for use by both transit and other vehicles.

Focus on roads? Regions have focused on roads for the last century and look where it has gotten everyone. More congestion!

Implement regional flex-time and ridesharing programs to lower traffic demand....

These actions will put our region back on the path to a high-quality road and transit system that we can be proud of.

This is the worst letter I've seen written on behalf of the other side. Surely they can do better than this, but again I'm expecting too much from a libertarian think tanker. Charlotte will make the right choice and this will be over soon and the libertarians will go back to their anti-tax holes. Hopefully where they stay until they drown in Grover Norquist's bathtub.


John said...

I've been on something of a campaign recently to turn the argument about transit green.

Single-occupancy vehicles are a crime against the community.

Your point about people gravitating to the free service until it becomes unusable is well-taken.

In a perfect world with lawmakers whose focus extends beyond the next election, the nation would have a carbon tax.

People who insisted on driving alone would pay a tax premium. People who left their car at home and road transit could bank credits for those essential trips.

Sure, I'm not going to hold my breath -- although that would be safer than breathing traffic-clogged air.

But if we don't have a vision of a better future to focus on, we will have no hope at all of coming to grips with the reality of our transportation failures.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

A Carbon tax is a great idea and who knows, perhaps soon we'll have something of the sort. That would definitely make transit more viable, but we still need more transit so that people aren't inconvenienced. You shouldn't have to be a hero to take transit, it should be convenient.

I've seen the Sacramento long range seems like you all are better off than most and headed in the right you just need some funding.