Vanishing Automobile Update #24

Planners Waste Money on Rail Transit

Although public transit carries less than 4 percent of all travel in most urban areas, regional planners in many areas want to spend the vast majority transportation capital funds on transit. Yet their own planning documents admit that spending these funds will do little to improve transit and will do much to reduce the mobility of many urban residents.

The table below compares the share of capital funds that long-range (twenty year) regional transportation plans propose to spend on transit with the share of motorized passenger miles that used transit in 2000. Passenger miles are taken from the 2000 National Transit Database, table 406, and 2000 Highway Statistics, table HM-72 (passenger miles are calculated by multiplying vehicle miles by the average occupancy of 1.6). Capital funds are taken from the regional transportation plans published by the various metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and are a share of transit plus highway capital funds -- bicycle or other funds are excluded.

Table One
Transit's Share of Capital Funding & Motorized Passenger Travel
and the Disparity Between Them
                   Transit's Share of:
                     Capital  Pass.
Urban Area            Funds   Miles  Disparity
Atlanta                 65     1.3      48
Austin                  34     1.0      33
Baltimore               40     2.2      18
Cincinnati              54     0.9      57
Dallas-Ft. Worth        30     0.5      56
Denver                  54     1.4      38
Minneapolis-St. Paul    71     1.0      70
Portland*               61     2.1      29
Richmond*                8     0.4      19
Salt Lake City          32     1.1      28
San Diego               43     1.5      29
San Francisco*          80     4.3      19
Seattle                 51     2.7      19
St. Louis               47     0.8      60
* Not posted on web.

The "Disparity" column is transit's share of capital funds divided by transit's share of passenger travel. This says that Atlanta, for example, is spending forty-eight times as much on transit passenger miles as on highway passenger miles.

All of the plans shown call for huge disparities between transit funding and transit's share of travel. The worst is the Twin Cities, which wants to spend more than 70 percent of transport capital funds on a transit system that carries just 1 percent of passenger travel.

Note that, except for Richmond, most of the urban areas selected are building or want to build a rail transit system. Richmond is notable for proposing to spend only 8 percent of its capital funds on transit, where none of the rail cities want to spend less than 30 percent of their funds on transit. Yet Richmond is still spending nineteen times as much on transit passenger miles as on highway passenger miles, which puts it in the same class as Baltimore, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Because transit's operating costs are paid by the transit provider, while highway operating costs are mostly privately paid by auto drivers and other highway users, we should expect an imbalance between transit and highway public operating costs. But the disparity between transit and highway capital costs should be much lower, especially considering that highways also support bus transit riders.

What is the appropriate ratio of transit vs. highway capital spending? A truly balanced plan would spend no more than $1 on transit passenger miles for every dollar spent on highway passenger miles. Even less than $1 may be justified because highways also provide freight service while most transit lines do not.

Of course, transit's share of travel may not remain fixed at the 2000 level. If spending a little more on transit can significantly increase transit's share of travel, than a small short-term imbalance may be worthwhile in the long run. For example, it might be worthwhile to spend twice as much on current transit passenger miles as on highway passenger miles if doing so will double transit's share.

However, only one of these transportation plans project a doubling in transit's market share: that for Portland, Oregon. Many are skeptical about Portland's claim. As Portland State University Urban Studies Professor Ken Dueker observes, the fact that no other MPO projects such a large increase in transit's market share "suggests the Portland RTP estimates to be wishfully optimistic or unrealistic." (Email for a copy of Dueker's assessment of Portland's regional transportation plan.)

A few other plans project a small increase in transit's share -- 25 to 35 percent -- but this is not enough to justify huge investments in transit. Many plans actually forecast a loss in transit market share even after spending 20 to 70 times as much on transit riders as on auto riders. This means that, for balanced funding, transit's share of spending should be less than $1 per current passenger mile for every dollar spent on current highway passenger miles.

Some might justify more transit spending using "environmental justice," the idea that transportation spending should be skewed to help poor people and minorities. Some of the plans include an environmental justice analysis, which is apparently required by TEA-21 (the 1998 transportation authorization act).

Based on these plans, however, environmental justice is not a reason to invest in rail transit. The environmental justice analysis for Cincinnati, for example, compares the share of the region's jobs that are or will be within 20 minutes of auto driving or 40 minutes of transit travel for poor, minorities, and everyone else. The plan's findings are summarized in the table below.

Table Two
Share of Jobs Within 20 Minutes of Driving
or 40 Minutes of Transit Travel
Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (Cincinnati) Regional Transportation Plan
                    Auto          Transit
                1995    2030    1995    2030
Minority         82      53      20      16
Low income       99      83      21      18
Everyone else   100     100      42      40

The table shows that Cincinnati's plan to build an extensive rail transit network significantly reduces the share of jobs accessible to low-income people and minorities while it does not much change the share of jobs accessible to everyone else. In their eagerness to build a transit system that will supposedly attract white, middle-class riders, planners are harming the future prospects of poor people and minorities.

The data in table one are based on the most recent long-range regional transportation plans for those cities, mostly downloaded from MPO web sites. I downloaded plans for many other urban areas, including Boston, New York, Phoenix, and Washington, DC. But the plans for these regions do not include details on transit and highway capital spending. Some other MPOs don't have their regional transportation plans posted on the web. If you have information about any other urban area, please forward it to me.

An alternative source of data to the long-term regional transportation plans is the transportation improvement program, or TIP, which planning agencies prepare every year. However, the TIP, which looks ahead just two or three years, does not provide a long enough time horizon to accurately measure imbalances between transit and highway funding.

Under ISTEA and TEA-21, MPOs must update their regional transportation plans every three years. This has generated an endless and expensive cycle of planning, most of which is paid for out of highway user fees that are therefore unavailable to actually do anything about congestion.

The planning process also transfers power from transportation engineers, who tend to be biased in favor of efficient transportation, to land-use planners, who tend to be biased in favor of transit. Supporters of the American Dream of mobility and efficient government spending should work to remove these planning requirements from the next transportation authorization bill.

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