Thursday, February 14, 2008

First Washington, now Miami

I have written about the metaphorical bomb dropped on Washington D.C. Metro when the federal government indicated last month it wouldn’t fund its planned rail extension to Dulles International Airport. The Federal Transit Administration said it was downgrading the project from a “medium” score to “medium-low,” which doesn’t meet the threshold for federal funding.

The FTA has done it again, this time shocking Miami-Dade Transit, which wanted to extend its Metrorail to Broward County. The FTA downgraded the Miami project, using similar language as it did when it rejected Washington D.C. It questioned whether Miami-Dade could pay to operate its existing transit system, much less a new line. It raised similar concerns in Washington.

This is germane to Charlotte because the Charlotte Area Transit System is moving forward in extending light rail to University City. CATS is starting next month engineering work to determine how it will build the $750 million, 11-mile extension.

CATS feels good about the project. The FTA last year approved it for preliminary engineering work, and CATS said that the ridership success of the Lynx Blue Line will help its projections with the northeast corridor.

It also has stressed that it’s going to stop along the way and make sure the FTA is still on board before it finishes the entire study, which would cost $30 million.

There won’t be a perfect time CATS to move forward, and transit officials here have stressed that if they don’t start engineering work now, they’ll never know if the FTA will ultimately pay for their train line.

That said, the Washington and Miami-Dade decisions underscore the risks in building trains. It also reinforces the belief among transit executives that this is a particularly tough time to get mass transit funding. They hope the next administration will loosen the purse strings.


Anonymous said...

I hope the extension gets funded! I think it will be great to have a light rail station at UNCC. It will really help the University Area grow in a smarter way.

Brian said...

And this area definitely needs some smart planning.

I've ridden the LRT since day one and I love it. Seems like a great answer to the traffic problems in Charlotte.

JAT said...


Isn't the operative question the number of NEW transit riders the South line has drawn, which in turn drives the big picture, which is the time saved in rush hour? IE, the FTA cares about mobility, not just body count.

Until we know the who and when those rides are taking place on the South line, we really can't say one way or another what they mean for future CATS rail lines.

More mysterious still -- How will CATS pay for the operation of the $400m. worth of streetcars the city of Charlotte wants to tax increment -finance into reality?

The Miami decision tells us directly that the FTA weighs such liabilities very carefully, that there is no free lunch no matter what the consultants and bankers might say.


Anonymous said...

Steve lets face it CHARLOTTE has not been able to finish the outerbelt for 25 years; This looks bad for Business when they come here and find this out; When a new business comes here ,like we do ,they do a study. Companies dont want to foot the tax bill on the rest of the freeway here. Now lets look at ligt rail; If it's anything like the OUTERBELT we are in trouble here.

Anonymous said...

Lets look back ten years ago when the OUTERBELT was supposed to be finished. Now the project is 180 million to get' er done'. Steve the Bill is growing and not getting cheaper and this needs to be done sooner than later. I love the SUBWAY in D.C. and ride it faithfully but we need four tracks here and they really dont understand the cost of Washingtons. Washington has bancrupted itself for subways and they have to have it, no choice there. I just think the price here will be a factor not to mention they should have one in MATTHEWS and HUNTERSVILLE.
By Jimmy the Earthworm

Anonymous said...

When Im elected to MAYOR in Charlotte I will use Prison labor to finish the OUTERBELT and LIGHT RAIL here. I will have "horses asses' that are robbing the place to death out there picking up the knee deep trash. In my town if you want to commit the crime you will work your time.

Anonymous said...

They made a few mistakes with the PINEVILLE express as it is and I told them before they started. First rule} You really shoul;dnt cross over raods with the track and they have three times. Im suprised where there are no GATES an accident hasnt happened. But the Light rail can continue with only one track and switch tracking into two when they need to pass. This happens by Computers and safety cut offs if an error was to occur , like tow trains down the same track. This system isnt that expensive and is syncronized for safety with many sensors and plenty of track headway.

Anonymous said...

The outerbelt is the states responsibility, not Charlotte's. The STATE needs to finish the outerbelt!

Anonymous said...

Yeah anon above, businesses hate to move here because of the outer belt.

Charlotte is only home to two of the largest financial organizations. Oh, and 389 of the Fortune 500 have some type of office here.

Yes, the outer belt is such a hinderance...

Rick said...

I always find it interesting when the pro-railers discount any road construction using the "roads are the state's or federal government's responsibility" argument when they are at the same time asking the state and federal government to pay for at least 75% of a rail project like the Northeast Corridor. This is a particularly ridiculous position when you consider gas tax dollars generated by roads are regularly shifted to fund transit projects.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I-485 money comes from a dedicated loop fund. It has to compete with other loops in the state for money. They are also not asking for 75% of funds for transit - they asked for 40% with the south corridor and are pushing for 50% for the northeast corridor. The federal government pays most that money. I believe the state only gives about 25%.

I am not sure about your comment that the state uses road money for transit, but even if it does, that isn't the big issue. The big issue is that they are taking millions from road money and shifting it into the general fund. Also, the state wastes millions of dollars because almost every project under construction misses its target date and gets delayed for long periods of time (I-485 for example).

I am not against roads, but I do not think they are the only solution. The citizens of Charlotte spoke in November, and many of them realize that transit is an important part of our future.

Rick said...

Last anon, I rode the bus to work 4 out of 5 days last week or by CATS math - I repesented ridership equal to 8 trips. (Though I only paid for 7 trips because, as usual, the pass reader was boken at least one out of ten times on the bus I ride.) If the North Corridor to Iredell (or someplace south of that) gets built I will be one of the miniscule number of people riding that line because I live near it. I'm not against transit either. I'm against wasting money, and by the way, apparently the Federal Govt agrees with that position - at least in DC and Miami.

As for my math, 50% Federal + 25% State equals 75% being paid for by tax dollars that could be used for other things if priorities were set correctly.

I would agree with you, that taking money for the general fund is an as big or bigger problem.

As for Federal gas tax transfers to the Mass Transit Account, here's a link. I believe the Federal Govt currently transfers about 15.5% of the 18.4 cents/gallon Federal gas tax.

Anonymous said...

If you don't believe in wasting money, why bother wasting money widening a highway when it is only going to get congested again? Because more people will use it? They will still be stuck in traffic. The only difference is that the road will be wider.

Anonymous said...

The real question has not been addressed. Jeff Taylor and others against rail use misleading statistics to support their argument....their math is much more interesting than what they claim CATS is posting. By Jeff's assertions, the average family spends in excess of $44k on taxable items per his website. That is interesting math since the average family in Meck only makes in the mid $60s.

The real question is what are the best ways for people to get around Charlotte, not only today but 10, 20, & 30 years from now. Roads are very important but, with gas increasing and projections of $4 -$5 per gallon in the not too distant future, there is no chance for a city to be successful without alternative forms of transportation. 485 should still be built, the state of NC needs to re-vamp the way road funds are distributed and Charlotte has to continue investing in rail.

Anonymous said...

This is boring. Bring back the Q&A that the old Dr. Traffic had. It was the most useful Q&A the O had.

Rick said...

Widening roads does not always lead to more cars and conjestion. In fact, in today's Observer there is an article about HOT lanes which would be one such example. Most places that have HOT lanes also mandate that those lanes move at a certain rate of speed - meaning no congestion. This is done by adjusting the toll based on traffic - both in the HOT lane and the general purpose lanes. Also, the tolls pay for the bulk of the road's costs (not all, but most), so I wouldn't call that a waste at all when compared to the subsidy needed for new train lines.

As the other anon pointed out, gasoline may very well go much higher. However, I would disagree that means Charlotte continue investing in rail. If we're going to keep the transit tax (and last fall's vote says we are) high gas prices should mean that Charlotte expands the bus service to provide usable alternatives to many more people instead of building rail which serves primarily those who live in government defined transit corridors.

As proof of that theory I'll point to another bit in today's observer. Route 54X is getting more service. Why? Because that route is growing rapidly (and it's not in a transit corridor). Building trains will not help most of those riders at all because they live in the apartment complexes right along the route and don't even get in a car to get to the stop. In fact, getting those riders to catch a feeder bus to the proposed Northeast line, transfer, and ride the rail into town will just make their trip much longer.

One can also logically project that if gas gets to $5/gallon, significantly fewer cars will be on the road, reducing congestion, and making bus service more efficient due to reduced traffic and higher ridership. It's simple economics. Even the most anti-transit person will take the bus when they simply can't afford to fill up their gas tank. Whenever gas gets to $3, CATS sees a spike in bus ridership. Imagine what that will be like if gas is $5.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I agree with you to a point. We will have higher gas prices in the future, it is more of a question of when we get to $5 per gallon than if. But, bus service alone will not get you there. First, as gas goes up, so does diesel, which will drive up the operating cost of transit. And, secondly, bus service will never promote the private service investments that we are seeing in SouthEnd.

The other missing factor is that conservative estimates have Metro Charlotte at 3.5 million residents over the next 15-20 years. Meck is projected at over 1m within 5 years. Based on those projections, even with $5 per gallon gas, congestion will not go away on the roads. Having rail in addition to roads (more lanes, HOT Lanes etc...) & bus service all have to be in place to provide efficient transportation.

The word economics keeps coming up in these discussions, one thing to remember is that a person's utility is always enhanced with more choices, that includes transportation choices.

Rick said...

Of those additional people, how many are projected to work in the center city? That's the main number that really matters when discussing the population growth as it relates to rail and congestion since the rail lines all feed into Center City parallel to existing roads with the main purpose being to transport workday commuters.

Even the wildest projections from CCCP for Uptown employment have about 100K jobs by 2020 or 2030. That's up from around 65K-70K today. I think those numbers are based on the same growth figures you sited. Take into account that many of these additional jobs will be filled by the projected new Uptown residents filling all the condo towers and appartments and the number of additional commuters from outside the Uptown area is somewhat less than probably 30K.

If/when gas goes to $5/gallon, you'll see huge increases in bus ridership, carpooling, and even telecommuting. Even now, one of the big banks in Uptown is rolling out a formal full-time telecommuting program in Charlotte. Several members of my team which is located Uptown have already started more telecommuting due to gas prices as they are now - myself included.

I'm not sure if spending billions of dollars to handle an addtional 30,000 people going to and from Uptown, and Uptown only, is the most efficient use of limited resources. Especially when the vast majority of those new residents in the region will be going somewhere else, and future fuel prices will drive significant changes in how our existing transportation resourses are used.

Certainly, a lot of people will ride trains if they are built, I'm not disputing that. The question is what provides the most people with the most options, something you seem to support. Buses seem to do that better.

I'm not discounting your point about rising diesel prices. I'll just say that most of that is offset when ridership increases. Also, CATS has a couple of hybrid buses and can buy more if needed. (Yes, they are way more expensive than regular buses, but you can still buy several of them for the price of 1 light rail car.)

And finally, why do you throw the development issue into a transit discussion? I thought we were talking about a transportation plan, not a development plan. If we're talking about providing tranportation options, I would think it would be better for the overall social good if our very limited resources were used to provide the most benefit to the most people, not just those who can afford to live in places such as South End.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I will agree with you some and the previous anon some.

Buses are an important part of the transit equation, there is no doubting that. And, bus ridership will increase when gas rises, that is simple economics. But, so will rail ridership.

But, when looking at the uptown numbers and the additional 30k workers, at the current rate of a couple of thousand condos proposed over the next 5 years, there is now way more than a small percentage of the new residents can live downtown (within the 277 loop). It would be physically impossible to add the office & condo towers solely within 277.

Discounting the SouthEnd development as it relates to transit is not the right thing to do. As evidenced by the condos & apartments being built and proposed down to 485 not eveyone in Charlotte wants to live in a traditional house. For developers, it is much easier to commit millions of dollars to a fixed transportation system than a handful of bus stops that can be moved around. The president of Crosland mentioned that earlier when announcing a project on the transit line.

A lot of the additional people who will live on the line will ride the train. I expect that the same will happen when the transit line is extended to UNCC. From an environmental standpoint and not having to stop behind a CATS bus every couple of blocks is a benefit to everyone, not just the SouthEnd residents.

In fact, many people who I know that work downtown living in the Ballantyne area are now riding the train. And, they only started riding CATS when the Lynx line opened, they could have easily rode the bus for years but, decided against it.

To me, it is simple, as Charlotte grows and gas/oil becomes more expensive, there is not one easy answer to Charlotte's transportation issues, it has to be a combination of roads along with bus & rail transit.

larry said...

If you ever been to Denver to see their version of HOT Lanes. It is not all what is it cracked up to be. I have several questions. Will 3 people HOV still be allowed from free. What is the incentives for Alternative Fuels Vehicles will they be alllowed. Will public transit and school buses be allowed to use the HOT lanes for express buses. Lastly is the speed that will be maintained in the HOT Lanes in terms of pricing.

Anonymous said...

HOT = class warfare.

Let's let people with money buy their way out of the traffic on a road built with tax dollars.

Anonymous said...

Rick is the dick as usual.