Vanishing Automobile update #54

Transit Lobby Puts Positive Spin on Poor Transit Returns

May 15, 2005

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released its 2004 ridership statistics on March 29 with a press release bragging that transit trips increased by 2.11 percent over 2003, which it claimed was more than the increase in highway travel.

APTA is the chief lobbying arm of that very narrow special interest, the transit industry. So it is worth questioning the group's positive spin on these numbers. A more realistic assessment can be gained from APTA's own recently released Public Transportation Fact Book (5.2 mb).

Ridership Fell in 2002 and 2003

First, APTA's press release didn't mention that transit attracted fewer riders in 2004 than in 2001 or 2002. As table 8 (p. 28) of the Fact Book shows, 2003 ridership was 2.25 percent lower than in 2001. The 2.11-percent increase from 2003 to 2004 failed to make up for this decline.

Second, in claiming that transit ridership is growing faster than highway travel, APTA counts all highways. But transit only serves urban areas, so it should be compared against urban highways. US DOT's Highway Statistics, table VM-1, shows that urban driving is growing much faster than rural driving.

Because of the rapid growth in urban driving, transit's share of urban travel declined in all but six of the past twenty-four years. Since 1980, transit's has lost more than 40 percent of its share of urban motorized travel.

Light-Rail Ridership Per Vehicle Mile Falls by 27 Percent

APTA's press release adds that "The largest increase of ridership in 2004 was in light rail, which showed an 8.2 percent increase from 2003." Yet light-rail ridership didn't increase because light rail is so popular with transit riders. Instead, it increased because numerous cities, including Houston, Minneapolis, Trenton, Portland, San Jose, New Orleans, and Sacramento, opened new or expanded light-rail lines while they cut parallel bus services.

When light-rail ridership is compared against light-rail service (table 19 on page 32 of the Fact Book), a more dismal picture emerges. From 1990 to 2003, light-rail service expanded by 166 percent, but light-rail riders increased only 93 percent. As a result, the number of passengers carried for every vehicle mile fell from 7.2 to just 5.3.

All transit modes showed diminishing returns, but as shown below none was as dramatic as for light rail.

              Trips Per Vehicle Mile   Percent
                  1990      2003        Change
Bus                2.7       2.4         -12
Commuter rail      1.5       1.4          -7
Heavy rail         4.4       4.2          -3
Light rail         7.2       5.3         -27

Subsidies Growing Four Times as Fast as Ridership

Naturally, as riders per vehicle mile declined, costs per passenger mile increased. After adjusting for inflation to 2003 dollars, transit's operating subsidy (operating cost minus fares) per passenger mile increased by 14 percent from 1992 to 2003. Meanwhile, capital investments per passenger mile increased by 67 percent, which means that the total subsidy per passenger mile grew from less than 50 cents in 1992 to 65 cents in 2003. By comparison, highway subsidies average about a third of a penny per passenger mile -- and less when freight is included.

To be fair, you wouldn't expect immediate increases in ridership from capital investments made this year. But the federal, state, and local governments have been flushing billions of dollars down the transit toilet each year and getting little in return. After adjusting for inflation, annual capital and operating subsidies increased from under $20 billion in 1992 to more than $30 billion in 2003.

Total subsidies over this twelve-year period exceeded $278 billion, of which $121 billion were spent on capital projects. Two-thirds of that amount was for rail projects. Yet in this time period, total transit ridership increased by a mere 11 percent.

In other words, transit subsidies are growing by nearly 4 percent per year, but ridership is growing less than 1 percent per year.

Transit Subsidies Are Twice Highway Subsidies

Transit's $30.9 billion subsidy in 2003 was more than twice the subsidy to highways. According to table HF-10 of the 2003 Highway Statistics, federal, state, and local governments spent $36 billion in non-highway user fees on highways. But this was mostly offset by the diversion of nearly $21 billion of highway fees to mass transit and other non-highway purposes. The result is a net highway subsidy of $15.2 billion. Though this is less than half the transit subsidy, highways carried 96 times as many passenger miles of travel as transit, not to mention far more freight ton-miles.

It is notable that APTA's press release didn't say anything about "balanced transportation funding." Any balancing would require moving money from transit to highways.

Taking a Wrong Turn

APTA's press release notes that it has "more than 1,500 member organizations including public transportation systems; planning, design, construction and finance firms; product and service providers; academic institutions, and state associations and departments of transportation." This list does not include transit riders, but does include "planning, design, construction and finance firms" that make billions of dollars building rail transit.

Thanks to lobbying by APTA and its pork-oriented members, American transit has taken a wrong turn. Instead of serving its core market of low-income and other transit-dependent people, the industry focused on glitzy rail lines (and, more recently, exclusive busways) aimed at attracting a few suburban auto drivers out of their cars.

APTA's agency-by-agency transit data reveals the huge problems rail projects have caused for transit riders in many regions.

Rail advocates often call rail skeptics "anti-transit." These examples show that the real anti-transit people are those who want to divert scarce transit resources into wasteful rail projects.

Expensive and Dangerous

APTA says its "members serve the public interest by providing safe, efficient and economical public transportation." But light- and commuter-rail transit are both expensive and dangerous. Table 42 (page 45) of APTA's Fact Book shows that these forms of transit kill far more people, per billion passenger miles carried, than buses or roads.

Fatalities Per Billion Passenger Miles
Mode              Fatality Rate
Bus                    4.7
Heavy Rail             6.3
Commuter Rail         10.9
Light Rail            14.2
Urban interstates      3.4
All urban roads        5.8
Source: Transit numbers for 1993-2002 from APTA Fact Book, tables 8 & 42; road numbers from Highway Statistics 2003, tables VM-1 and FI-20

Incidentally, Houston's new light-rail line, which has been involved in 88 accidents in its short life, caused its first fatality on May 10. Though the transit agency blamed it on the automobile driver, rail skeptics noted that the intersection allows only 1.5 seconds between the red light and the clear signal for the light rail and that the light rail was involved in another accident at the very same intersection just two days later.

Now More Than Ever -- What?

"Now more than ever," APTA's press release quotes its President William Millar saying, "it is urgent that Congress pass a long-term, well-funded and fully guaranteed transportation bill that meets the increased public demand for public transportation."

The truth is that Congress has been overfunding the wrong kind of public transit for decades. Misincentives in the congressional funding process encouraged transit agencies to turn away from their core markets and focus on expensive rail transit to suburbs with low transit potential. This in turn created a huge lobby of "planning, design, construction and finance firms" that promotes expensive transit to the long-term detriment of transit riders.

The good news is that the Bush administration has taken a first step towards correcting the course of the transit industry, proposing that any projects that cost more than $20 per "hour of transportation user benefit" not be funded. This would eliminate many weak projects, including an extension of BART to San Jose and Portland's Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail line. Predictably, APTA's comments on this proposal opposed using cost-effectiveness as a criterion for funding transit projects.

Now more than ever, before high-cost, low-benefit investments in wasteful transit projects destroy more transit systems, Congress needs to rethink its funding process. This means encouraging transit agencies to find ways to serve their customers as effectively and efficiently as possible and taking away incentives to divert limited transit resources to wasteful rail projects.

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