Public Interest Transportation Forum - http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf
Response to Glenn Pascall's "The Rail Transit Debate: An Assessment of the Arguments"
by Emory Bundy
February 3, 2002
Background: Glenn Pascall, Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute wrote a paper, "The Rail Transit Debate: An Assessment of the Arguments," released December 2001. Pascall's paper is also the basis of two op-ed columns by him, "A rational look at transit" in the Seattle Times, December 21, 2001 and "Transit choices need cool heads, not hot zealots" in the Puget Sound Business Journal, January 21, 2002. Emory Bundy, whose views are covered prominently in Glenn Pascall's paper, responds in the essay below.
To begin at the end, Glenn Pascall's concluding sentences endorse a meritorious standard:
"Rival charges are often made without supporting data or analysis; indeed, even without public insistence that such facts be included in the political dialogue. There is a need to raise the bar on the quality of decision-making in this crucial arena so we can make the right decisions on transit choices."
He then proceeds to his conclusion that Sound Transit rail should be promoted, based on no data about its costs and benefits, or what might be accomplished if comparable sums were spent in productive ways.
The context in which Pascall writes is central Puget Sound, with a severe congestion crisis, close to embarking on the construction of prodigiously costly light rail transit, beginning with a behind-schedule, less-challenging, cheaper (merely $.2.86 billion) sub-portion of the 21 mile "starter rail" Sound Transit promised to have in operation by 2006. Pascall followed his paper with an op-ed in the Seattle Times, presumptuously titled "A rational look at transit," that began and ended, as follows:
"Seattle has a new mayor. King County has a newly re-elected executive. And the governor has a legislative majority of his own party. All this adds up to politically stable leadership and a chance for rail transit to get back on the positive side of the public's mind .
"Done right, rail makes sense. It's time to get off dead center and move on to the specifics."
Pascall's The Rail Transit Debate had its public debut at a January 16 Discovery Institute luncheon, co-sponsored by the Bullitt Foundation, a civic rail rally titled "Let's Get Puget Sound on Track." Pascall's co-star was Slade Gorton, senior partner of Sound Transit's leading law firm, Preston Gates & Ellis, one eminently capable of carrying Sound Transit's water in Washington DC, who called for more money for Sounder commuter rail.
With this context, for the rest of this response I will focus on the content of the paper, and how best to address the nightmare of growing immobility and congestion in the central Puget Sound.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND, AND BASIC DATA
To start with the fundamentals, heeding Pascall's call for data, here is an outline of the pertinent facts:
1. There is a crisis regarding the region's congestion and mobility, that grows worse with each passing year. A fundamental cause is obvious: for three decades, the population has experienced robust growth, and the number of vehicle miles traveled has grown at a rate triple that of population.
2. The Puget Sound Regional Council calculates that the central Puget Sound urban area is experiencing a growth in daily trips of about 200,000 per year. In 1996 (when the current light rail project was launched) it was 8.9 million, has surpassed 10 million, will be about 12 million in 2010, and 14 million in 2020.
3. In 1968 and 1970, proposals for an extensive urban rail system were put before the region's voters, and lost. The federal money that the Seattle area could have obtained went instead to Atlanta. In a recent Texas Transportation Institute review, Seattle and Atlanta were tied as the second most-congested cities in the USA, so the community that got the money, and the rail system, fared no better than the one that didn't. Further, metropolitan Seattle has a far better public transit system, without rail, than Atlanta has, with. The west coast community that, during this time, instituted the most costly, ambitious rail-building program, Los Angeles, is the number-one most congested community. Now it has a markedly smaller transit market share than it had before it started its rail projects, and struggles under a $4 billion capital debt burden.
4. In the early 1990s, a plan for a 125-mile light rail system was composed, centered on Seattle, plus extensive regional commuter rail. A new, multi-county transit organization--the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, aka Sound Transit--was created by the state legislature. It was determined that the rail systems would cost $13 billion, and could be completed by 2020. Sufficient funding authority was provided, in the form of local option taxes, principally a 0.9 percent sales tax, plus an addition to the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, to be supplemented by anticipated federal grants.
5. It was concluded that a $13 billion package likely would fail at the polls, so in 1995 RTA submitted a more limited proposal to voters, for $6.7 billion, drawing on a portion of the local option taxes. It lost.
6. After extensive polling and focus groups, RTA proposed a further scaled-back system in 1996, comprised of a 21-mile "starter rail," mostly in Seattle, plus an 80 mile commuter rail line, to run from Lakewood to Everett, via Tacoma and Seattle. Successful implementation was to build confidence in the agency, so the remainder of the taxing authority would receive subsequent voters' approval, and the 125-mile light rail network could be completed on schedule, by 2020. Applying data from the polls and focus groups, RTA added programs and funding for regional buses, additional miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and connecting overpasses. The $3.9 billion proposition won, and the taxing authority was granted.
7. The 21-mile light rail starter component, called Link light rail, was to run from a terminus in SeaTac, a mile south of the airport, to the airport, through the Rainier Valley, join the existing downtown transit tunnel, under Capitol Hill, terminating in the University District. Sound Transit hoped to stretch its resources and extend the line three additional miles, to Northgate. The cost was to be $1.7 billion ($1995), the largest single portion of Sound Transit's $3.9 billion plan. In year-of-expenditure dollars, the current usage, Link was to cost $2.4 billion.
8. To provide reassurance to voters, and build election support, Sound Transit gave the following assurances, which appear in Sound Move: The Ten-Year Regional Transit System Plan: a) The estimated costs were extremely conservative, and the agency will have fiscal policies in place to make certain the plan will be completed within budget. b) The components in the plan will be completed and operating within ten years, and Sound Transit will make certain the schedule is met. c) The taxes will not continue beyond the ten-year plan, without a subsequent public vote and approval. If that vote is not affirmative, taxes will be rolled back, save for sufficient funds to cover outstanding bonds and additional operating costs. d) The plan expressly eschewed any state money: "The RTA assumes no state funds, thus placing no additional demand on limited state resources that are needed for other regional transportation investments."
9. In order to reassure voters in outlying areas that they will not be forced to pay for a Seattle light rail system, the region was divided into five subareas--Snohomish County, Pierce County, and North (including all of Seattle), East, and South King County. Voters were promised that taxes collected in the domain of their subarea will be used exclusively for its transit investments and benefit.
10. After additional, intensive route planning, engineering studies, and costing, in September1999 Sound Transit represented to the federal government that Link starter rail would cost $2.6 billion, roughly a quarter-billion dollars more than the "extremely conservative" figure approved by voters in 1996. That figure was reiterated in Sound Transit's March 2000 up-date to the federal government.
11, Further anticipated cost overruns burgeoned, but the agency kept those developments as secret as it could. Even Sound Transit's own, in-house, projected overhead costs for the Link project doubled, from $160 to $320 million.
12. As 2000 progressed, Sound Transit tried, but failed, to get $200 million from the state legislature, to help fill the unacknowledged shortfall. Then it tried to divert one-third of King County's new local option tax, that the legislature had provided for local transit agencies whose budgets had been savaged by Initiative 695--which did not include Sound Transit. Had that quest been successful, it would have yielded bonding capacity in excess of $600 million, and helped cover the gap in resources. But by one vote the county council turned it down, 7-6.
13. Eighty-eight citizens then announced a Call for an Independent Audit, and charged that cost overruns had surpassed a half-billion dollars. At a hastily called press conference, the chairman of Sound Transit's board claimed that the agency was "audited to death," there were no cost overruns, and cited Deloitte & Touche's work as evidence. Those who suggested there were overruns, he said, "have simply twisted the truth." (Seattle Times, September 7, 2000)
14. The projected cost of Link light rail continued to be represented as $2.6 billion until after the project received a favorable recommendation from the Federal Transit Administration, and got by the obligatory congressional review process. That process requires the congressional committees to actively intervene, if they think appropriate. It they fail to act, the project stands. A mandated, accompanying, independent financial analysis commissioned by FTA, gave the project a clean bill of health--but it relied exclusively on Sound Transit's data. Absent truthful information, congress did not have cause to intervene.
15. Immediately after completion of the congressional review period, in November 2000, Sound Transit admitted that its lowest Capitol Hill tunnel bid, which it had been keeping secret since July, was approximately $300 million greater than its $500 million budget. Other revelations within a month prompted the agency to admit that the projected cost of the Link "starter rail" was $3.6 billion, not the $2.6 billion conveyed to the federal government, and the congress. For the gullible, Sound Transit had accumulated a projected overrun of an additional $1 billion, while no one noticed, including the veteran chairman of the finance committee.
16. The true cost was higher still, and the reason is germane to a discussion, later, of current estimated costs. It was $4.16 billion, $560 million more, mainly because the agency had entered financing costs, before and during construction, in another ledger, rather than reflect them as part of the capital development cost. That violates Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, the accounting profession's guide. While Sound Transit continued to tell local reporters and citizens the cost was $3.6 billion, the federal government noted and reported the cost at $4.16 billion, because it observes GAAP standards.
17. Having obtained the endorsement of FTA, and having gotten by the congressional review period, Sound Transit was awarded its sought-after $500 million federal full funding grant agreement (FFGA). But the consummation of that success was unconventional, as the professional FTA staff refused to sign off on the project. So Senator Patty Murray and Representative Norm Dicks prevailed upon the outgoing Secretary of Transportation, Rodney Slater, to personally sign the FFGA, committing the federal government, 16 hours before his term ended.
18. A preliminary investigation of the Inspector General, US Department of Transportation, April 4, 2001, noted acute irregularities in the process, faulted the erroneous representations of Sound Transit, and the oversight failure of FTA: "FTA did not perform satisfactory due diligence in the grant application review process. FTA and Sound Transit need to explain why they advanced the grant approval process in September 2000 despite information that the Project's cost and schedule were changing significantly. Both FTA and Sound Transit had information that the $1.674 billion cost estimate and revenue operation date of June 2007 contained in the grant agreement submitted to Congress in September 2000, were materially understated and consideration of the grant agreement should have been suspended or withdrawn." (The $1.674 billion figure was for a 7.2-mile segment.)
19. The FFGA funds then were held in abeyance pending further information and review. There is no process for rescinding an approved FFGA, so the money continues to be designated for Sound Transit.
20. Within a week of the Inspector General's report, Sound Transit admitted it did not have sufficient funds to build the project it had contractually obligated the region to build, when it accepted and signed the FFGA.
21. Sound Transit then crafted a scaled-down, cheaper proposal, to build only 14 miles of the 21-mile route, from South 154th, one mile north of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, terminating at Convention Place, at the north end of the existing downtown Seattle transit tunnel. It hopes to complete that project in 2009, three years later than originally promised for the entire 21 miles.
22. Sound Transit estimates that the capital development cost of its smaller, easier project is $2.1 billion, or $150 million per mile. It includes only 0.8 miles of tunneling, under Beacon Hill. The budget benefits immensely from the existing, 1.3 mile tunnel under downtown Seattle, which the agency intends to acquire from King County at a tiny fraction of its original cost, and an even tinier fraction of what it would cost to build, today.
23, But the true Sound Transit development cost for the first 14-miles of Link is not $2.1 billion, but $2.86 billion--$760 million higher. This can be confirmed in Sound Transit's New Starts Report to the federal government, appendix B (October 2001). The discrepancy is due to the fact that for local, public consumption the agency omits the project's financing costs before and during construction--that it estimates at $351 million--which Generally Accepted Accounting Principles requires be included as part of the capital development cost. And there is an additional $390 million in various capital costs (purchase of downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel from King County, Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, and public art), plus reserve funds. Sound Transit gives the low-ball figure to local reporters, which sounds better, but it is compelled to admit the true, estimated cost to the federal government. So the per-mile cost is $200 million.
24. To give some idea of the cost trajectory for the less-risky, cheaper portion of the Link starter rail project, the southern 14 mile segment was to cost no more than $1 billion (all constant, year-of-expenditure dollars) when the "extremely conservative" proposal was put to voters in 1996. In January 2001, after massive, additional overruns had been admitted, and Joni Earl had put her stamp on the planning and review process, the predicted cost of the southern 14 miles was $1.56 billion. The public was assured that that was a solid number, and promised there would be no more surprises, which reassurance was widely reported in the daily press. Today the estimated cost is $2.86 billion for the south 14 miles. That's $1.3 billion cost escalation since last year's reassurances, and a nearly 300 percent increase since voters had a say in 1996--and the discrepancies are given practically no press attention at all..
(There are two complications in this comparison. The current 14 miles is two miles north of the original 14 miles, so it is not identical. But it does not appear that that should make an appreciable difference in its total cost. And now that the current 14 miles is to be constructed first, Sound Transit contends that there are some up-front costs that have been moved from the northern portion. Even so, the cost increases are staggering.)
25. As for the promised route north from downtown, more than half-way through its ten-year transit plan, Sound Transit hasn't figured out an alignment yet. In 1996, the agency assured voters that Link light rail was the best-planned urban rail line that had ever been initiated in the US. Among other things, its Expert Review Panel guaranteed it.
26. Meanwhile, if the promised 21-mile "starter rail" is to be completed, some day, it must reach the University District. But it is agreed that Sound Transit erred in placing its north rail terminus in the congested U District, so current plans decree that the "starter rail" must go at least an additional mile, to Ravenna, and preferably to Northgate, an additional three miles. $600 million is an optimistic estimate for that extension.
27. In January 2001, Sound Transit said the cost for the 7.2 miles from the U District to South Lander Street, one-plus miles south of downtown, was $2.6 billion, including financing costs, per GAAP, or $360 million per mile. The segment includes tunneling under Capitol Hill and the ship canal. In short, the per-mile cost north of downtown is much greater than south.
28. Sound Transit's current estimated cost to subsequently complete the additional, two miles of the promised 21-mile project, from South 154th to the southern terminus at South 200th, including a stop at or near the airport, is $477 million.
29. Because planning for the route north of downtown is in disarray, the cost is unknown. Sound Transit consultants recently reported that there are no significant cost savings via south Lake Union, Boren or Eastlake Avenues, alternatives that require a high bridge over the ship canal, then a set of challenges to get to the University of Washington. Further, there are more prospective transit patrons on Capitol Hill. So tunneling under First and Capitol Hills remains possible, or likely, with some prospect of modest savings by tunneling under the Montlake Cut, near the UW stadium, rather than under Portage Bay. The route north of downtown probably will cost in excess of $300 million per mile, whatever alignment is selected.
30. Sound Transit calculates that, with its authorized revenue sources, South King County will not have funds to continue Link light rail to the airport and South 200th Street, and North King County cannot afford to continue to the University District, even with a second $500 million federal grant. The north addition is likely to be about $2 billion to get to the U District, plus another $600 million to get to Northgate. Under current taxing authority Sound Transit hopes to have merely $360 million left, after completing the first, south 14 mile project. (That figure has been fading, as Sound Transit's exuberant local tax revenue estimations fall short.) If there is to be a route north, more local funds will be required, which will necessitate further taxing authority, which will need the approval of local voters. Whether they will grant it is problematic.
31. There is no indication that the agency will give voters an opportunity to roll-back the current taxes after ten years (1996-2006), as promised.
32. The author of this paper, with former governor Booth Gardner, met with Sound Transit executive director Joni Earl last March 21, and urged the agency, in the light of current knowledge, to review and update its 125-mile rail plan and budget. Unless there is a reasonable network of service, within a reasonable span of time, the utility of the small, "starter-rail" project will be minimal, probably counterproductive. So it is vitally important to gauge whether the plan is feasible. The current funding authority, provided local voters authorized the full 0.9 percent local sales tax, might have been sufficient to carry out the $13 billion plan, with federal grants--if only the cost estimate had been sound. With today's knowledge, a more reasonable estimate would be in the $30 billion range, with no plausible funding to bridge the difference.
33. Further, the development of Sounder, the commuter rail line, is far over budget, too--65 percent over, with more to come--far behind schedule, short on riders, and short on farebox revenue. That is another story, but it is germane, here, because it is another drain on hard-pressed agency resources.
34. As for the revenue side, in its January 2001 budget submitted to the FTA, Sound Transit projected annual revenue growth in excess of five percent per year, for the next two decades. The first year fell woefully short of that giddy prediction, and 2002 looks worse. Since October, Sound Transit's projection of money left to go north from downtown, after the original 14-mile project is completed, plummeted from $417 to $360 million. Costs up, revenue down.
35. Given the burgeoning number of daily trips in the region, and worsening congestion, it may seem that a multi-billion dollar rail system is essential. That is not true if it is severely constricted, wasteful, and ineffectual. Taking Sound Transit's numbers, it hopes Link light rail's initial, 14-mile segment will carry 42,5000 daily passengers by 2020, 40 percent of them, 17,000, "new riders"--people who are not already transit patrons. In that same span of time, 1996-2020, daily trips in the region are projected to increase by about five million, according to the official Metropolitan Planning Office, the Puget Sound Regional Council. For a $2.86 billion capital investment, followed by heavy operating subsidies, Link light rail will serve but one-third of one-percent of the five million new daily trips.
36. That will leave 4,983,000 new daily trips to be served in some other fashion.
THE CASE MADE BY PASCALL: COST DATA
The Glenn Pascall analysis confirms the wisdom of Sound Transit's light rail project, and urges it on: "Let's Get Puget Sound on Track." But there's a dearth of data to support that conclusion. He aligns himself with the messages of "Light Rail Progress," a pro-rail journal sponsored by a partisan group in Austin, Texas, named Light Rail Now. That group is entitled to engage in passionate advocacy for public transportation policies it favors. But it is not a dispassionate, well-grounded source of information, deserving the deference Pascall confers. An international organization called Carfree Cities--pro-transit, pro-rail, and pro-compact urban design--has a Web site linking information-seekers to a plethora of relevant sources, and aptly describes Light Rail Now's mission:
"Light Rail Now contains a useful collection of data for those marshalling arguments in favor of light rail and against bus systems."
Light Rail Progress/Light Rail Now is analogous to the American Tobacco Institute. It may have bright people, and it may gather good, legitimate research and findings. But its purpose is to promote a particular outcome, and its method is to select, interpret, emphasize, and sometimes distort, in order to promote the rail transit industry's interests. An objective, disinterested group, seeking the public good, it's not. And now, a sister-group chapter has been formed in Seattle, called Rail Transit Now. Its key organizer appears to be Dick Ford, an effective Sound Transit operative and senior partner in Preston Gates & Ellis.
Pascall marshals arguments in favor of his a-priori rail preference. Though he calls for data, little of it underpins his analysis, and what there is, is often abused. Here's a pair of examples pertaining to costs, drawing on two tables he presents:
On page 13 there's data from an article titled "Light Rail Ridership and Cost in Seven Western Cities" (July 2001)--most of the recently-developed light rail systems in the US. The article was crafted by a pair from Denver's Transit Alliance, another rail transit advocacy organization. The seven light rail projects are located in Dallas, Denver, St. Louis, San Diego, San Jose, Portland, and Salt Lake City. All but Salt Lake City have complete data presented on miles of line, average daily riders, and capital costs.
A simple arithmetic exercise, adding the aggregated capital cost for the six cities with complete data--$4.156 billion--divided by the total number of light rail miles in those systems--167--yields the result that the average per-mile capital development cost is $25 million. In contrast, the least-costly portion of Sound Transit's Link light rail is projected to cost $200 million per mile. I assume the $25 million per mile is in past dollars, and today's figures would be higher, perhaps double, maybe more. Still, the discrepancy is immense. Glenn Pascall seems not to notice the scale of difference, doesn't mention it, and appears oblivious to its implications.
On page 15, there's a table from a prestigious source, the Natural Resources Defense Council. Its study is titled "The Price of Mobility: Uncovering the Hidden Costs of Transportation" (October 1995). NRDC seeks to discern the full, per-mile costs of automobiles, buses, and rail, including costs borne by society (like air pollution and health consequences), government (subsidies for transit, roads, traffic police), and personal (transit fares and the costs of auto ownership). The results are: Autos, 43 cents per mile, Buses, 36 cents, and Rail, 50 cents.
The operating cost superiority of buses is substantial, but Pascall glosses it over: "NRDC's analysis reveals that there is little difference between the total average cost per passenger mile for each of the three modes." To the contrary, NRDC data reveal that the per-passenger mile operating cost for autos is 19 percent higher than buses, and rail is 39 percent higher. That is not a trivial difference.
On this same point, Pascall reports elsewhere, "An important advantage claimed by light rail supporters over buses is lower operating costs due to the ability of rail to couple multiple cars in one set with a single train operator." The source is his favorite authority, Light Rail Now. He promised an assessment of the arguments, but he neglects to mention that the statement is false, as confirmed not only by NRDC, but numerous other studies based on empirical research, by authoritative and disinterested professional sources, in both private and government institutions.
Put the two tables together, and the implications compound. The projected, per-mile capital development cost of the initial, 14-mile Link light rail is multiples greater than every project quoted in the table Pascall presents, and the subsequent Link additions, north and south, promise to be even higher. On the operating side, trains are markedly more costly than buses, on a per-passenger mile basis, according to NRDC So Pascall's data suggest Sound Transit's Link light rail is a terrible proposition, going and coming. Rather than assess, as promised, he obfuscates.
The fact that Link light rail is a dubious investment is confirmed by Sound Transit's recent calculation for Link's "incremental cost per new rider". That is, what will the central Puget Sound region pay for each and every one-way, daily trip by each Link light rail rider who was not already a transit patron? The agency's New Starts Report for Link Light Rail (October 2001), required by FTA, using FTA's prescribed methodology, concludes it is $15.60 (pages 31 and 48). When Sound Transit first applied for its full funding grant agreement, in 1999, the figure was $3.30, which wasn't bad. But that was premised on understated development costs, and a different alignment. $15.60 cost per ride is prohibitively expensive.
THE CASE MADE BY PASCALL: COST OVERRUNS
Glenn Pascall, introducing a section titled "Construction costs," correctly notes that "Bundy argues that constructing light rail systems costs too much, especially relative to ridership." He then digresses to cost-overruns, and knocks me out of the park with putative evidence that rail projects tend not to have serious overruns, are no more susceptible to overruns than bus projects are, and that trains have all sorts of other cost advantages, anyway.
I will focus on Pascall's claim that urban passenger rail projects in the US tend not to have serious cost overruns. Once again, he selects Light Rail Progress as the authority for his argument. Guided by that journal, he cites an August 1999 Government Accounting Office report, which reviewed the capital development costs of 14 transit projects, including seven light rail (LRT), four heavy rail (RRT), two bus rapid transit (BRT), and one commuter rail (RPR). The study reached the following conclusion:
"Among the projects, cost overruns were reported on none of the LRTs, three of the four RRTs, two of the BRTs and the one RPR." In short, 11 of 12 rail projects stayed within budget.
The manner in which Pascall uses and presents the GAO report is misleading, and obscures the troublesome attribute of urban rail projects that's at issue:
The commanding problem is not overruns after contracts are let, it's radical misrepresentations when the projects are selected and justified, taxes are voted, and grants are sought. The common trajectory of abuse is, first the local transit agency and its advocates egregiously understate the costs of the rail project, and overstate its benefits, when they want to select rail as the preferred transit alternative, and when they seek local sanction and taxing authority. Then they make similar misrepresentations when they are seeking a federal grant. There's no gainsaying that Sound Transit illustrates this pattern.
This means that other, more productive local transit investment opportunities are forfeited. The ultimate cost of the rail project to the local community, relative to its benefits, is much greater than that represented when the fateful selection decision is made, hence the value of the investment is radically lower. The community pays much more, and gets much less than promised. The urban areas with the most elaborately misrepresented projects, in competition for limited FFGA funds, are awarded grants, while other communities, which may have more meritorious projects, more accurately crafted, are disadvantaged. The quest for the money provides a veritable incentive to misrepresent, at both the local and federal level.
These abuses are well-documented. Dr. Donald Pickrell, senior economist at the Volpe National Transportation Center, US DOT, subjected this issue to rigorous study. An accessible version of his fact-packed analysis, titled "A Desire Named Streetcar: Fantasy and Fact in Rail Transit Planning" appeared in the Journal of the American Planning Association (spring 1992). The summary of the journal account tells the essence of the story:
"The forecasts that led local officials in eight US cities to advocate rail transit projects over competing, less capital-intensive options grossly overestimated rail transit ridership and underestimated rail construction costs and operating expenses. These mistakes cannot be explained by such obvious sources as errors in projecting the input variables of the ridership forecasting models, or changes in the design of projects. Although planners could reduce the magnitude of errors by various technical improvements in the forecasting process, the structure of transit grant programs and the existence of dedicated funding sources provide little incentive for local officials to seek accurate information in evaluating alternatives. The resulting bias toward high-capital transit investments is thus unlikely to be eliminated without restructuring both federal transit grant programs and local financing mechanisms."
The fact that the cost of these projects usually is immense--"virtually every project this article reviews represented the largest investment in public works ever undertaken by the local area"--magnifies the adverse consequences of mistakes, whether innocent or intentional.
Much is made of Portland's MAX system, but it has exhibited the standard maladies and misrepresentations. While claiming its eastside and westside projects came in near or under budget, the first, MAX eastside, was over budget by 55 percent, and westside was on the order of triple the projected cost. But according to Tri-Met, even the westside project came in under budget. One expert transportation analyst, who for professional reasons prefers to remain anonymous (but who's identity I would reveal to a good reporter, on a background basis) explains how this can be:
"Tri-Met's representations that MAX was 'on time and under budget' are, if not completely fraudulent, based on revisionist cost forecasts issued well after the commitment to proceed with the project was made by local officials and approved by the federal government."
In short, select and justify the project on low-ball estimates, then get local funding authority and federal grants on those rosy assurances. As the project proceeds, push the estimates upward until, when it's completed, the actual cost is reasonably close to the last budget.
The federal government funded a substantial proportion of MAX, even as development costs soared far beyond the level that justified local and federal approval. Not only was there an incentive to underestimate, to get local approval and a federal grant, it was followed by a perverse incentive to let costs balloon, which expanded the federal money flowing to the local area. As MAX's eastside costs rose, Uncle Sam covered 83 percent. Project overruns brought a second flood of federal money.
The transgressions that Pickrell cites, and his recommendations, led to reform efforts. One adopted reform is to insist that cost overruns will be the sole responsibility of the local agency, and the federal government has no matching commitment to cover them. Whether that reform will provide an adequate incentive for competent and honest forecasting remains to be seen. Sound Transit's performance is a discouraging precedent.
Another congressionally-mandated reform is independent financial scrutiny. After the Federal Transit Administration staff evaluates a project, and makes a determination whether to recommend an FFGA, the project must be subjected to an independent financial analysis. The resulting report is provided to the oversight congressional committees. Those committees, with FTA recommendations and independent financial analyses in hand, have two months to review the material, and intervene, if they wish. Absent intervention, FTA's grant recommendations stand.
Sound Transit's Link light rail project illustrates how this reform has been subverted. First, Sound Transit systematically skewed data in its planning process to favor rail, and disadvantage bus transit alternatives. Then it presented a rail funding package to voters, that egregiously underestimated costs, capital and operating, and overstated ridership benefits. With local taxing authority in hand, Sound Transit submitted its FFGA proposal to the federal government, with the same misrepresentations.
FTA reviewed the Link light rail project, recommended it for a grant, then commissioned Diversified Capital, Inc. to execute the independent financial study. DCI reviewed the agency's financial records, interviewed eleven Sound Transit executives and professionals, and the agency's general counsel, Desmond L. Brown, of Preston Gates & Ellis. Based on representations made, DCI gave the agency and the project a clean bill of health:
"After detailed analyses of Sound Transit's financial condition and capacity, the FMOC [Financial Management Oversight Contractor] has concluded that Sound Transit has the financial capacity to construct the Central Link MOS-1 [minimum operable segment] project; fund the operating costs of the Central Link system when completed; and meet the financial requirements to operate, maintain and preserve its existing plant and equipment. In addition, Sound Transit has the financial capacity to complete, maintain and operate the on-going regional express bus and commuter rail projects included in the Phase I plan."
The problem was, the conclusion was false, the process a charade. The reason it was false is to be found in a low-key disclaimer in the DCI report:
"Since data provided by Sound Transit were assumed to be accurate, any inherent limitations, errors or irregularities that occurred may not be detected."
In short, the same misrepresentations Sound Transit had made all along the line were forwarded to DCI, and the independent fiscal reviewer accepted them at face value--even though it was abundantly clear they were materially false. It was not a close call; they were false by well over $1 billion. One has to wonder whether legal counsel, Preston Gates & Ellis, properly instructed Sound Transit board members and senior staff of their obligation, in law, to represent financial information accurately, when seeking a federal grant or contract. To fail to do so, whether the information is known to be false, or should have been known, is a felony offense, under the False Claims Act, and risks prosecution. Defending a billion dollar misrepresentation in federal court could be a daunting task.
Subsequently, in an unusual move, the Office of Inspector General, US DOT, investigated this sordid sequence, and recommended that grant funds be withheld. ("Interim Report on the Seattle Central Link Light Rail Transit Project, April 4, 2001) That led to Sound Transit's admission that its healthy fiscal condition was not so healthy after all, and it could not afford the project it had contractually obligated the region to build. Then the agency turned to the current, scaled-back, cheaper segment--which will cost more than what voters were told the entire project would cost, take longer to build, and carry but one-third of the represented passengers.
But that $500 million FFGA money still is designated for Sound Transit's Link light rail, and there's no ready procedure to rescind it. If the agency can scrape through the current process, not with a competitive project, which it isn't, but with a barely-acceptable FTA ranking, it may still get the money. Sound Transit's trump card is the fact that Patty Murray is chairman of the transportation subcommittee of senate appropriations, and Norm Dicks is a senior member of the house appropriations committee.
The other dimension to this ledger is that Sound Transit's ridership projections are overstated, just as its costs have been understated. Pascall's paper, citing a rail transit advocacy group, Transit Alliance, denies that ridership predictions tend to be exaggerated. After reviewing seven light rail projects, Transit Alliance proclaimed, "Ridership exceeded projections in every case."
Like cost overruns, ridership projections are systematically misrepresented. It works the same way: Early in the process, when the agency is comparing transit alternatives, pursuant to selecting rail, it exaggerates anticipated rail ridership. When the project is authorized, and submitted to voters, those inflated numbers help win votes. The pattern continues through the FFGA process, and helps secure a federal grant. Then, as project development proceeds, the predicted ridership numbers come down until, shortly before the system is put into operation, there is a realistic number, one that the agency has a good chance to meet, or even exceed. That's the number that Transit Alliance, and Glenn Pascall, refer to.
To illustrate, Dr. Jonathan E.D. Richmond, Taubman Center, JFK School at Harvard, who did his PhD research on the Los Angeles system, summarized the record in LA, as follows:
"In Los Angeles, for example, an artificially low forecast of 10,000 daily weekday riders one tenth of the original forecast for the mature system was made for opening operations on the Green Line light rail. This enabled Metropolitan Transportation Chair Larry Zarian to announce one year following the line's August 1995 inauguration that the figure of 15,000 daily weekday riders actually achieved 'is more than we projected for our first anniversary when the line opened last August. This is exciting news for all of us.'" ("Transitory Dreams, How New Rail Lines Often Hurt Transit Systems" )
As for MAX, in Portland, when the system was rationalized and approved, in 1977, the daily ridership projection for 1990 was 42,500. Tri-Met representatives said that was "probably low, due to a number of purposefully conservative assumptions " What was the actual ridership number in 1990? Only 20,500--merely 43 percent that predicted. But, in the interim, Tri-Met lowered the forecast to 19,250--and voila!, the ridership prediction was met, exceeded, ballyhooed in press releases, and repeated ever since. (Richmond, "A Whole-System Approach to Evaluating Urban Transit Investments," Harvard University [November 1, 1999]) Then groups like Light Rail Now and Transit Alliance pick up the beat, and now Glenn Pascall amplifies it.
BART was supposed to have 285,000 daily riders on its original lines, by 1975. A quarter-century later, while population of the Bay Area grew 30 percent, it has almost reached its original target.
This is not meant to suggest that LA, Portland, and the Bay Area are worse than others. Misrepresentation is the norm, fostered by the incentive-structure in the federal rail grants process. The tragic result is much less productive transit investments than voters were promised, and the foregoing of superior opportunities.
The bad news continues, because, after the excessive capital costs are absorbed, and the less-than-originally-predicted ridership is manifested, operating cost performance usually is worse than projected, too. Even at this early stage, Sound Transit is headed in that direction, with Sounder's per-train operating costs high, revenues falling short, and Link's farebox revenue projections fading.
Glenn Pascall's disinformation helps sustain the abuses. The ultimate victims are a community's transit patrons, travelers generally, freight-haulers, and taxpayers, particularly lower-income residents, on whom the regressive sales tax falls hardest.
I asked Dr. Don H. Pickrell, who is quoted above, as the researcher and author of the primary inquiry into this subject, to review the previous two sections, and alert me to any errors. His response: "I reviewed--and concur with--your comments. All the 'evidence' Pascall cites is provided by advocates, and cannot withstand even the most cursory analysis." Again, Pickrell is Chief Economist, John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, US Department of Transportation, and has held faculty positions at Harvard and MIT.
THE CASE MADE BY PASCALL: POLLUTION BENEFITS
An argument often made in favor of transit, whether bus or rail, is its prospective role in reducing air pollution. In support of this notion, Pascall has some heady quotes, like,
"Seattle's transit agency claims that by using Metro buses in 2001, system riders will have saved 14 million pounds of pollutants out of the air."
Relying on Bill Roach, recently retired as a senior, long-serving Metro Transit professional, I know that the per-passenger mile fuel consumption of Metro buses was 20 miles per gallon--a quarter century ago. Recently I asked Roach if he could verify whether my memory on that point was correct. He said, "Yes, but that was a long time ago. Metro's per-passenger mile fuel consumption is not nearly so good, today." Because the region's population has continued to disperse, and Metro is trying to reach out to the lower-density suburbs, distance and light patronage cause it to operate less efficiently.
Bus seats are occupied only about 14 percent of the time. Along most routes, near the ends of the line, during off-hours, including night runs, and going against the rush, there are lots of vacant seats. The pattern of operation for trains is not dissimilar. With a conventional car (not an SUV), a person driving alone consumes less fuel per passenger mile than Metro Transit does, or the average per-passenger fuel consumption for a passenger train. According to the US Department of Energy's Transportation Energy Data Book, 15th edition, table 2.15, page 2-25, passenger buses consume 4,374 British Thermal Units of energy per passenger mile, trains 3,687 BTUs, and automobiles 3,593 BTUs. Since that report was published, SUV use has burgeoned, and therefore automobile mileage has declined somewhat.
There's another important source of vehicle pollution, ignored by Pascall. Most pollution caused by an internal combustion engine emanates from its "cold start," and early operation. This source is to the advantage of transit vehicles, that have more passengers, and run longer hours, so have fewer cold starts. But the park-and-ride lots that serve Metro Transit and Sound Transit, the "kiss-and-ride" trips, and the parking garages Sound Transit is building to accommodate Sounder's patrons, assure that the region will bear the bulk of the pollutants of those transit patrons' automobiles. Martin Wachs, the director of the prestigious Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, puts it this way:
"[W]hile environmentalists frequently assert that transit improves air quality and energy efficiency, it is easy to exaggerate these benefits .A diesel bus is probably worsening air quality when passenger loads are fewer than a dozen riders. Cars pollute most when their engines are cold because their catalytic converters reach maximum efficiency at high temperatures, so people who drive to rail stations are often doing little to reduce air pollution. Furthermore, rail system construction is energy intensive, and trains and buses use a great deal of power that can be efficient only if patronage is higher than it often is." (Blueprint Magazine [September 10, 2001])
Sound Transit's Link light rail promises to start evicting buses from the downtown tunnel, and add them to congested, downtown streets, where air quality problems are most acute. Since the north terminus will be downtown, at Convention Place, Link inevitably will attract lots of vehicles downtown, whether buses or cars, to connect people moving to or from the train. Yet downtown is where air quality is worst. The second worst area is the University District, where Sound Transit previously planned to place its north terminus until it ran short of money. That would have intensified air quality problems there.
If Sound Transit, or Glenn Pascall, was really interested in pollution abatement, there are very easy, cost-effective, and prompt measures that could be taken. Use existing rolling stock and roadways more efficiently, and provide more incentives to accomplish that end. Chuck Collins, a former Metro Transit director, in his Ride Free Express proposal, urged fare reforms as incentives to put the 30 percent of vacant seats coming into downtown Seattle, during morning rush hours, to work. That would cut pollution, and cut it even more if the fare incentives engendered better use of the immense, under-utilized, non-rush hour transit capacity.. As ridership increases along lines already fully subscribed, due to fare reductions, the Collins plan would selectively add new buses--bringing optimal per-passenger mile fuel consumption, since the transit buses would serve the most productive routes, with highest use. And finally, give incentives that would radically expand the vanpool fleet, which is much, much more fuel efficient than buses, and more cost-effective.
Add to that incentives to carpool--multiplying the efficiency of fuel consumption per passenger mile, in cars, which are the biggest fuel consumers in the aggregate. Plus better accommodations and incentives for the most fuel-efficient modes of all, bicycling and walking.
And finally, more expansive support for enlightened workplace and institutional programs, like the state's Commute Trip Reduction Act, and the University of Washington's U Pass program, would help, too. That would facilitate more efficient us of the existing roadway and transit systems, move more people more effectively, save money, reduce pollution, and do it all much more swiftly.
Forget the billions Sound Transit is intent on squandering. Some millions of dollars here, tens of million there, and hundreds of millions of dollars for aggressive transit fare incentives, more rolling stock operators, and vanpools, plus a completed HOV lane network and workplace incentives, would accomplish much more in pollution reduction, as well as mobility.
THE CASE MADE BY PASCALL: TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT
Pascall introduces transit-oriented development as his central rationale for rail, the trump card. Rail service, in tandem with good land use planning, will bring a flood of compact residential and commercial development. It hardly matters what rail costs, by this argument, because it will be compensated by facilitating dense development and enhanced property values. Those assets will be compounded further, because people will live closer together, and to the services they need, so will travel less.
"Rail transit can support desired land-use outcomes--if land use policy supports rail." That is unquestionably a true statement, essentially tautological: if land use and rail transit are mutually supportive and compatible, they can work well together. Rail can do that, and it has, most dramatically in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As the industrial era replaced the agricultural era, people manufactured and distributed goods, and markets evolved from largely local subsistence to regional, national, and international markets. Adequate transport was an essential precondition. Previously, a horse or mule-drawn wagon had to suffice. In the growing cities, horse-drawn wagons were placed on steel rails, increasing their efficiency. Then steam engines were introduced, and the railroad era began in earnest. Great cities, able to manufacture and distribute goods, were located where the railhead hit the harbor, tapping the capacities and the reach of ships and railroads.
Urban areas, where manufacturing took place, and workers lived, were necessarily compact, because rail and ship transport required it to be so. Rail promoters created the suburbs: the prospect of nodes of community and commercial activity could rationalize a new line, and open up opportunities for land development. Activity had to be centered near the stations, because they were the aperture for the movement of goods, between producers and consumers. Hence Edmonds, Kent, Auburn, Sumner, and Puyallup once were compact, suburban towns, not the sprawling municipalities they have become..
It's a different world today, and rail is not king anymore. The urban area is less dense and much more spatially distributed. There is an array of transportation options, especially given the convenience and omnipresence of private vehicles that can move goods or people directly from origin to destination, from home to work, to the babysitter, restaurant, Home Depot, shopping mall, business park, industrial area, soccer, dentist, and music lesson.
Rail transit promoters tout transit-oriented development as a holy grail that will relieve congestion, build communities, and protect the environment. But when an urban rail system is very expensive, especially if it exceeds $100 million per mile in a not-very-dense area, the immensity of the cost precludes it from being extended very far. Pascall makes an abstract claim that transit-oriented development can leverage change, but the prospects for success are much more confined than he implies, or that relevant, empirical data sustains. As Martin Wachs, observes,
"It is frequently claimed that investments in transit will lead to urban redevelopment at increased densities. The truth is more modest. To be successful, transit needs the patronage, fiscal support, and operational advantages that come with better-coordinated land use."
Two colleagues of Wachs at University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies, John Landis and Robert Cervero, have closely evaluated the land-use consequences of the extensive Bay Area Rapid Transit system since its origin, three decades ago. It may be the most careful, methodical evaluation of the interaction between a new rail system and its land use impacts. The conclusions of that study, "Middle Age Sprawl: BART and Urban Development," presented in the institute's journal, Access (Spring 1999), begins as follows:
"BART was the first American rail rapid transit system to be built in modern times, and its arrival was greeted with worldwide attention. BART is famous. Its fame is attached to its favorable image as the answer to the problems of the modern American metropolis. And the extent to which it has succeeded, or failed, to live up to expectations is an important lesson for other cities wanting to emulate it."
Here are key findings, that lend scant support to Pascall's claim that passenger rail "leverages" utopian land use practices:
|Contrary to expectations, population has grown faster away from BART than near it.|
|From 1970 to 1990, job growth outside of San Francisco grew 85 percent in non-BART districts compared to 39 percent in the BART-served ones.|
|Approximately 4,000 housing units were demolished during the construction of BART.|
|After BART was completed, between 1970 and 1990, housing units within a quarter-mile of BART stations declined by nearly 4,000 additional units, or roughly 11 percent. The number of housing units in non-BART-served cities grew by 20 percent.|
|Property values and congestion levels near BART stations are generally too high, and neighborhood services and amenities too low, to attract single-family homebuilders.|
|Few weekday BART riders actually shop near BART stations.|
|BART has had a concentrating effect on office development--but only in downtown San Francisco.|
|One would expect to find higher rents for office space near BART stations. No such pattern is evident.|
|Traffic congestion and motor vehicle usage has increased dramatically since 1970.|
There are exceptions to the generally disappointing results, as noted in an editorial accompanying the above-cited research report, by the eminent land-use authority, Professor Melvin M. Webber:
"Metropolitan areas around the country have been building or extending rail systems and, with some notable exceptions, experiencing similarly disappointing patronage and urbanization effects. One exception is Washington's Metro, whose Orange Line route into Virginia is now a rapidly urbanizing corridor with a series of new, high-density subcenters surrounding stations."
To repeat the point, this is not to deny that transit-oriented development is possible, and desirable. But in this era--with car ownership near-universal, ubiquitous delivery trucks and vans, land use densities in the central Puget Sound urban area but 3,000 persons per square mile, retail destinations proliferating not concentrating, and the same for business and work locations--the challenge is overwhelming. Whatever the dreams for rail-dependent, transit-oriented communities, the anticipated stations often will come equipped with parking lots and parking garages, consuming blocks of land nearby, filled with the cars of transit patrons. The accompanying traffic mayhem, including bus/rail connections, will provide disincentives for residential development, particularly the single-family homes that most Americans covet, and for retail businesses that need street accessibility and parking space for their customers.
Pascall by-passes the weighty scholars, grounded in policy institutes and leading academies, free from conflicts-of-interest, who base their conclusions on empirical research. Instead, he gravitates to sources like Paul Weyrich, Aaron Ostrom, and Light Rail Now. Weyrich is a very bright man, and he knows a lot about transportation, a keen interest of his. His essay, co-authored with William Lind, "Twelve Anti-Transit Myths: A Conservative Critique," is worth reading and pondering. But Weyrich is not a professional in this field, not a serious researcher, and is given more to polemics and social crusading. He is better known for his partnership with Jerry Falwell, to create, name, and promote the Moral Majority, and for decrying the way "Cultural Marxism" dominates American life. Keep your kids out of the public schools, away from the record stores, and boycott Disney. He's a rail transit and transit-oriented enthusiast, and thinks a rail system is a hallmark of a civilized society.
When exposed directly to relevant information, Weyrich has proven himself capable of modifying his opinion. A stalwart supporter of Amtrak, he was appointed by Senator Trent Lott to serve on the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC). His position was, "We should not downsize Amtrak, we should eliminate the ARC." But recently he voted to kill Amtrak, because now he thinks it's hopeless: "Amtrak is a fatally flawed institution that, in my opinion, is broken beyond repair." He says it's bloated and unresponsive, with poor customer relations.
Aaron Ostrom is executive director of 1000 Friends of Washington, a civic group promoting "smart growth" and good land use policies. He has opinions, and they're worth noting and considering, but he is hardly an authority on transit-oriented development, and he exaggerates its prospects. In an essay dated September 2000, he claimed that Portland's east and west MAX light rail lines "have yielded a $2.4 billion increase in the value of developments along the line." That's absurd.
If Pascall wants to engage in a serious inquiry about the pros and cons of rail transit and land development, and the hard evidence to support this position or that, he would better consult those who trade in hard, authoritative and dispassionate research. One of his colleagues at the Discovery Institute, John Niles, is very broadly informed on the subject of transit-oriented development. If Niles has reached conclusions that Pascall doesn't want to entertain, at least he could review the extensive literature search and biographical summaries that Niles, and his partners Dick Nelson and Aharon Hibshoosh, have compiled, and tap into legitimate, expert, disinterested research.
Relying, instead, on Weyrich, Ostrom, and Light Rail Now, Pascall is lyrical about the prospects for rail-inspired transit-oriented development. He also draws support from an economic development researcher from University of North Texas, and an economist from an unidentified institution. He confidently concludes, "rail attracts clusters of development, which tend to raise the tax base by increasing land and property values [which] suggests major offsets to out-of-pocket costs of a rail system, in the form of greater personal wealth and higher public revenues."
Its a nice dream, and if it was true, ours would be a happier lot. There are instances of successful rail-transit development, as Webber cited, and even the generally dismal record of BART on this score, as compiled by Landis and Cervero, finds a few silver linings, notably in downtown San Francisco. But, in the main, the research community does not support the Pascall/Ostrom dream. A typical conclusion, based on empirical research of the real world, is illustrated by the findings of Peter Gordon, of the Urban Planning and Economic departments at USC:
"Low densities make high-capacity transit systems unattractive and therefor wasteful of all resources utilized, including energy. Because the spreading out of cities reduces markets for conventional public transit (especially fixed rail, which is spatially inflexible and usually oriented downtown), it should be no surprise that the US transit industry has been in decline for most of the 20th century. Massive subsidies have not helped."
Link light rail, two decades hence, a quarter-century after voter approval, after billions of dollars have been expended, might offer people transport through the Rainier Valley to downtown--a 14-mile corridor that's already well-served with bus lines. If Sound Transit gets really lucky, and people vote to ratchet the funding to $6 billion, Link might stretch 24 miles, SeaTac to Northgate. It's an exceedingly slender thread on which to shape the land use aspirations of this expansive, dynamic region.
Local TOD aficionados had better quit looking down their noses at bus transit. If central Puget Sound has any chance of moving toward a "more compact urban form," it's not going to do much of it with a $200 million per mile rail transit project, because it'll never reach very far. The network of buses, in contrast, extends countless hundreds of miles in this three-county metropolis. Redmond recently announced a major lower-income housing initiative near its transit center, which sounds ideal, particularly given that its prospective tenants are precisely those citizens who most depend on transit. On the Eastside, for the foreseeable future, that means bus transit. Even if Link accomplishes everything in Sound Transit's dreams, buses still will be carrying ninety percent of transit patrons. Pascall has had some exposure to this notion, because he selected and quoted an article by the noted expert, Martin Wachs. But he neglected to mention the title: "Get on the Bus, Gus."
GLENN PASCALL AND LEAST COST-PLANNING
Pascall correctly reports that I believe in the efficacy of least-cost planning, as developed in the electric energy sector, and that the methodology can and should be adapted and applied to transportation. He dismisses that idea.
"In a turnabout on the issue of relevant costs, Fred Salvucci of MIT adds a caveat to Bundy's approach: 'I'm disturbed to see people who call themselves environmentalists use least-cost pricing because this often excludes environmental costs.'" Period.
As a new employee at King Broadcasting Company, I had lead responsibility for a documentary series on the future of the environment of the Puget Sound region, in 1970. The objective was to encourage and facilitate citizens, both those organized through a civic process, and those watching television at home, to learn more about the environment, assess the dictates of their own values, and then actively apply the knowledge and values in ways suitable to each individual. The project was a success; in some journals it was heralded as a national model. KING TV's eight-part series, rebroadcast four times weekly on public television, series included some tangible outcomes, the most notable being the creation of the 13 mile Burke-Gilman Trail, a bicycle and walking corridor converted from an old rail line. That led to more extensive trails, in Washington state and throughout the nation, and the formation of the national Rails to Trails Conservancy, which was inspired by the Burke-Gilman example.
My research led to Ian McHarg, head of landscape architecture, University of Pennsylvania, who transformed thinking about land use planning in the US. The intellectual underpinning of the "smart growth" movement emanates from McHarg, and those he influenced--though he doesn't think good land use planning is dependent on rail transport. His concepts were presented, philosophically and in case studies, in his award-winning classic, "Design With Nature," which I read like a Biblical text
Along with promoting ecologically sound land use practices, McHarg excoriated the consequences of externalized costs, such as the environmental and human impacts of coal-mining. He pointed to Appalachia as a prime example, where the strip mining richly benefited the mining companies, the heating and electric utility industries, and the customers who consumed their products. But much of the true cost of coal extraction was "externalized"--it was borne not by the industries, nor their consumers, but by the local people, in the form of a scarred countryside, polluted waters, diminished economic prospects, prevalence of black lung disease, and other maladies. McHarg argued that justice, and sensible economics, decrees that the full costs should be borne by those who benefit from the extraction and consumption of resources, and not fobbed off on bystanders. If that were the case, the industries would do a better job preventing and mitigating such damage, and the commodity would be used more efficiently.
My first documentary on energy, "The High Cost of Cheap Power," applied the insights of McHarg to the production of Northwest electricity, whether by coal plants, nuclear generating stations, or hydroelectric dams. It included direct economic costs, public health and safety, water and air pollution, and impacts on wildlife. One scene featured a manager of the Bonneville Power Administration, standing on the banks of the Columbia River, conceding that the hydro dams had largely destroyed the fabulous salmon runs. Then he admitted that the costs were imposed on others--Native Americans, fishing communities, society--and were not paid by the BPA, the utilities, or their ratepayers.
The program also reviewed less conventional forms of energy--geothermal, and the longer-term prospects for solar power and fusion. The core point was, without knowing the full costs of production, including health, social, and environmental impacts, it is impossible to make sound decisions about either the appropriate scale, or the most cost-effective sources of that commodity.
Important initiatives calling for better energy planning tools surfaced, and led to least-cost planning. The approach incorporates "full-cost accounting"--all possible, relevant costs--and drives decisions to the most efficacious outcomes. It insists that "demand side" be accorded equal standing with "supply side"--that is, if an investment in conservation meets power needs in a more efficient manner, it should be pursued, in preference to more costly, new generating capacity. The Natural Resources Defense Council published a well-researched regional least-cost planning exercise for the Northwest, with explicit measures to meet energy needs more cost-effectively, with greater environmental protection.
Meanwhile, the region's utilities were plunging ahead to build 20 nuclear and coal-fired central generating stations by 1990, and 50 by 2000. The Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) had five nuclear power plants under development. The first effective challenge to that juggernaut was the Seattle Energy 1990 study. A legal initiative by the Washington Environmental Council, based on NRDC's work, led to a community process to review Seattle City Light's decision to purchase ten percent of WPPSS nuclear projects #4 and 5.
Dr. Donald Shakow, of Mathematics Northwest, a natural resource economist, was consultant to the study. He pioneered an elegant methodology to evaluate the ways to serve energy needs--by carefully scrutinizing end uses--and compiled the best cost data. He dealt both with costs for new power generation, and costs to increase efficient energy use. The assembled evidence indicated that Seattle had better, cheaper, and faster ways to conserve equivalent energy, more quickly and at lower risk, than WPPSS #4 and 5 would produce. That conclusion was confirmed by the Energy 1990 citizen oversight panel, and, amidst great civic controversy, it was adopted by the city council. That hard, contested decision proved to be a boon to the City of Seattle, its residents, and ratepayers.
Ralph Cavanagh, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, became the region's most effective advocate and diplomat for least-cost planning. Ed Sheets, barely out of graduate school, staffed the nonprofit sector's effort to inform and engage the public concerning the Energy 1990 process. He then served as head of natural resources on Senator Warren Magnuson's staff, and helped shepherd the enactment of the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980, which mandated least-cost energy planning for the region. He was appointed the first executive director of the Northwest Power Planning Council (NPPC), and oversaw the successful implementation of least-cost planning for the Northwest, the first effort on such a scale in the world.
Sheets credits Shakow for first developing the methodology, and successfully demonstrating it, in Seattle. Otherwise, it would not have been attempted on a regional scale. NPPC's least-cost planning helped extricate the Northwest from the worse consequences of the WPPSS melt-down, enabling the region to cost-effectively reduce electric demand from an annual growth rate of six percent to one percent, even while the population soared and the economy boomed. Because investments in energy efficiency were much less expensive than investments in new generating plants, this greatly moderated energy prices, while the region struggled to absorb the huge WPPSS debt.
The field of transportation--with even more costly infrastructure, immense energy consumption, and harmful environmental impacts--could similarly benefit from least-cost planning, if only the transportation planning establishment, and policymakers, would let it. Their excuse is that transportation is just too complicated for least-cost planning. Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, gave a rejoinder to that claim in the following, elegantly-crafted paragraph:
"I do not concede that least-cost analysis of the regional power system -- encompassing hydro, gas, nuclear, cogeneration, renewables, conservation, transmission, distribution, thousands of industrial processes, myriad residential and commercial applications, vast seasonal variables, diurnal cycles, and salmon and other environmental costs -- is less demanding a task that an analysis of metropolitan Seattle's transportation requirements."
In April 1992 I provided testimony to the Washington State Energy Committee, and called for the adoption of least-cost planning for transportation. There is, quote, "tremendous inefficiency in the transportation sector, buttressed by wasteful use of land resources, and the failure to account for environmental costs." I outlined, "a mosaic of cost-effective strategies"--better land use planning, including access to public transit, parking reforms, more energy efficient and less polluting vehicles, transportation demand management policies, more support for walking and bicycle commuting, more incentives for carpools and vanpools, more high-occupancy vehicle lanes, more efficient use of the existing bus transit fleet, flexible working hours, and support for telecommuting. All to be guided and disciplined by a rigorous, transparent, comprehensive comparing of costs and benefits, using the same planning techniques devised for electric energy.
The costs and impacts of the omnipresent and voracious automobile deeply concerned me. Existing rail rights-of-way offered "potentially valuable and relatively efficient amenities dedicated lines, along historically settled corridors, that could be put into use much more quickly than building a new rail system." I was wary about new rail systems, concerned about "the extent to which our region's dispersed population can be served with reasonable efficiency by such a capital-intensive system."
With respect to every option, in transportation as with electric energy, the test should be comprehensive costs, including externalities and social impacts, factoring in risk, striving for the most effective, prudent, economically and environmentally benign outcome. The best answer usually is not one big, expensive project, the proverbial silver bullet, but multiple, synergistic, cost-effective increments. The outcomes should emanate from a rigorous, inclusive, comparative analysis of full costs and benefits, and let the chips fall where they may.
In the resulting Washington Energy Strategy, promulgated in January 1993, the lead recommendation was least-cost planning for transportation. If only the planning establishment would do it, the politicians would support it, and there was a public interest constituency that demanded it--as emerged for energy, this region could make rapid progress in addressing its transportation woes.
Dick Nelson, who as a legislator had promoted least-cost electric energy planning, was instrumental in helping craft and advocate for a new state statute mandating least-cost planning for transportation. That mandate has been ignored and resisted by the transportation planning establishment, and its political overseers. Civic groups like Transportation Choices Coalition, 1000 Friends, Washington Environmental Council, Seattle League of Women Voters, and the Municipal League are so star-struck with the romance of rail that they are immobilized when it comes to supporting tough, cost-effective transportation planning. But until they do, this region will be stuck, worse and worse, until the demand for highway construction obliterates other opportunities.
As an employee of the Bullitt Foundation, I solicited Ed Sheets to summarize the least-cost methodology as applied to electric energy, and describe how it might be adapted and applied to transportation.
Don Shakow teamed with Dick Nelson to implement an exercise for the central Puget Sound region, to demonstrate how least-cost transportation planning could be done. That exercise received support from the Bullitt and Medina Foundations, and the Cascade Bicycle Club. The authors were restricted by the data to which they had access, but were able to evaluate and compare 19 transportation options. There was resistance to the results--though the results, as Shakow and Nelson patiently explained, could be easily changed, as the process was transparent, and the model was computerized. Any data or assumptions could be challenged, and the calculations recomputed, which would alter the outcomes, perhaps modestly, perhaps radically.
Because of complaints from those who didn't like the outcomes, the foundation asked that the study process be repeated, this time overseen by a prestigious national panel of experts. That was done, with similar results.
Then the Puget Sound Regional Council tried its own least-cost planning exercise, using a somewhat different methodology, called "integrated transportation planning," and a different set of experts, from ECONorthwest. It was a case study process, that also considered various alternatives, used cost-effectiveness as the key decision criterion, considered all significant social costs, included risk analysis, and, had the project continued, would have monitored results. It, too, was overseen by a national panel of experts.
ECONorthwest is a well-regarded, regional economic consulting firm, admired and often used by environmental organizations, because it consistently strives to incorporate environmental costs and benefits in its analyses. PSRC released "A Primer for Policymakers" in June 1995, giving a progress report. The final report was completed in February 1996, but it was kept under wraps until May 31, 1996, by which time the $4 billion Sound Transit plan was officially adopted. Then the least-cost study was very quietly released, with no public notice, and no wonder: Rail was the most wasteful, least productive option.
With similar core concepts, but different methodologies, Shakow/Nelson, and ECONorthwest/PSRC, each guided by excellent professional panels, reached similar conclusions. They are most readily illustrated by a graphic from the Shakow/Nelson study, that on one page summarizes the results of a rigorous analysis of 19 options.
Least-cost planning has resistance in the transportation sector, just as it has had in the energy sector, because there are interests that want to pursue courses not confirmed by good data and a fair, objective process, particularly if they entail big-money projects, whether rail or road. One consistent outcome of the studies was to call into question the efficacy of Sound Transit's rail projects. Instead of facing the facts, that prompted rail aficionados to ignore or denounce good planning. They might believe in least-cost planning as a concept, so long as their pet projects are not subjected to its discipline. Nuclear proponents acted the same way, in the 1970s.
Least-cost planning is not magic, it requires sound judgment, it cannot succeed without good data, and it is by no means infallible. It seeks to protect against and correct serious error, by transparent data and assumptions, and a continuing quest for good information and critical review. Anything can be challenged. If a party insists that a key datum is wrong, and alternate information should be applied, that can be promptly done with today's computer modeling, which Skakow superbly applied. Disagreements might identify critical research priorities, to illuminate and resolve serious data questions. The process requires integrity, and its transparency helps protect against abuse and incompetence. The process requires constant monitoring, the continuous testing of predictions against results.
Where Sound Transit's rail projects would be, if the agency's predictions were tested against its performance? They cannot stand scrutiny.
This ends a summary of my personal history in the quest to meet the region's transportation challenges. My entry was inspired by Ian McHarg's quest for good land-use planning, and inclusion of environmental externalities. It was developed and shaped by Ralph Cavanagh and NRDC, Don Shakow and Seattle Energy 1990, Ed Sheets and the Northwest Power Planning Council, and buttressed by the counsel of Ed Sheets, and the more recent efforts and modeling of Shakow and Dick Nelson, and ECONorthwest..
The essence of least-cost planning is clear, compelling, and conceptually simple: compare costs and benefits, include externalities, be prepared to invest equitably in both the demand side and supply side of the equation, keep the process transparent, strive to use public resources efficiently, and monitor results. It's not utopian. The fact that it's been successfully applied in the electric energy sector suggests that it could be similarly applied in the transportation sector--if only there was a will to do so. Until there is, the prospect for alleviating congestion and improving mobility in the region is dim.
Glenn Pascall seems oblivious to the attributes of least-cost planning as pioneered and advanced here, and that a central tenet is the inclusion of environmental costs and values. He went out of his way to select a hostile quote from someone in Massachusetts, who apparently doesn't know anything about the concept, at least as practiced and refined in this region, somebody heavily implicated in the Boston Big Dig fiasco. But why did Glenn Pascall drag my name into the Salvucci quote, suggesting that I am promoting a course that neglects environmental values, when he knows it's not true? Once again, here is what Pascall wrote about what he calls "Bundy's approach." I would like it measured against my record:
"In a turnabout on the issue of relevant costs, Fred Salvucci of MIT adds a caveat to Bundy's approach: 'I'm disturbed to see people who call themselves environmentalists use least-cost pricing because this often excludes environmental costs.'"
TO END AT THE END
Glenn Pascall ends his paper with a call for good data and sound decisions:
"Rival charges are often made without supporting data or analysis; indeed, even without public insistence that such facts be included in the political dialogue. There is a need to raise the bar on the quality of decision-making in this crucial arena so we can make the right decisions on transit choices."
The need for the best possible data and planning process in this critical area of public life, transportation, is imperative. It is a very large, very expensive, energy-consuming, pollution-generating sector, with profound implications for civic well-being, including the ability to move people and goods, air and water quality, land use, and the responsible application of public resources. Good data? Let's have the very best, and consider all plausible options. A higher standard of decision-making? Let's have a rigorous and open process, and apply that data to the best possible ends, factoring in environmental and social costs along with conventional accounting.
The optimal response to what Glenn Pascall professes to want, is transportation least-cost planning. Rigorously relate costs and benefits, protect the environment, and use public money to good effect. But he cavalierly dismisses it. Only he knows why. Clearly it isn't the reason he gave.
Through a long, personal odyssey, I have modified my opinion of the merits of given rail projects, as information and analysis accumulated. What I have not modified is a strong environmental ethic, and a belief that government has an obligation to use public money in a responsible and productive fashion. Nor am I answerable to anyone else, or for hire. As evidence accumulated, and events unfolded, including project-specific analyses by Don Shakow, Dick Nelson, and ECONorthwest, followed by massive overruns on projects that already seemed questionable, I conformed my view at each stage to the best evidence available. That conduct was in strict, disciplined accord with the guidelines under which I was charged to work at the foundation: "intensify efforts to increase economic efficiency and environmental protection in the electrical energy and transportation fields."
Denis Hayes knows all this; most of it happened on his watch, while I was working with and for him at the Bullitt Foundation. I reported to him regularly. I've summarized and resummarized the same information, emanating from my ongoing search for the best, most objective data and analysis. He has never disputed the authority, skill, and bona fides of Don Shakow, Ed Sheets, Dick Watson, Dick Nelson, ECONorthwest, and the pertinence of planning innovations in the electrical sector by NRDC, nor has he ever suggested a better alternative source or sources, or planning methodology.
Link light rail promises to serve only 17,000 "new riders" in 2020--this is Sound Transit's data--while PSRC predicts the region will generate five million new daily trips between 1996, when the project started, and 2020. So a $2.86 billion capital investment will serve but one-third of one-percent of the daily new trips generated in that span of time. That's not good enough; it's counterproductive. The benefits will never approach the costs, and better opportunities will be foregone. And yet that's the course Pascall embraces. He never confronts the data he proclaims to want, and no wonder: the data destroy his preference.
My position is rooted in a diligent search for authoritative, dispassionate information, while Pascall, in contrast, has gravitated to Paul Weyrich, Aaron Ostrom, and Light Rail Now. He draws once on NRDC, then misrepresents its findings. His rhetoric to the contrary, he evidences no serious interest in good data, expert sources, or dispassionate, sound decision-making.
The Rail Transit Debate is an exercise in partisan research and publication. It triggers the memory of a short treatise I wrote in October 1996, in response to some of the deceptions Sound Transit (RTA) already had put into circulation: "If the RTA Project is Defensible, It Could be Defended by Telling the Truth."
I had a draft of this paper reviewed by a few non-conflicted professionals in the field, as I usually do. They observe that there are many insupportable and distorted assertions Pascall makes, and complain that in numerous instances I fail to set the record straight. Having exerted considerable time and emotional energy on this write-up already, and having consumed a lot of space, I simply will copy selected observations, in bullet form, from an excellent source:
|Construction costs: Pascall says, "major cost savings per mile of construction are achieved when right-of-way (and, even better, trackage) is available." True, but he fails to mention that Link utilizes no existing railroad rights-of-way or existing tracks, hence, there are no savings. Pascalls "analysis" is irrelevant, because it does not apply to the project proposed by Sound Transit (ST).|
|Rail vs. Bus: Pascall says, "Rail would seem to have an advantage over bus in this regard, due to predictable speeds on dedicated rights-of-way, higher design quality of transit vehicles, and the limited number of transfers on a fixed route." This remarkable sentence starts with a presumption that rail will be operating in a dedicated right of way, while buses would not, then asserts that rail vehicles are of "higher design quality," then finally claims that rail would involve fewer transfers! 1) Buses in HOV lanes operate with a high degree of schedule reliability. If there is any evidence that Link operating on surface streets would have more reliable operation, Mr. Pascall has not provided it. 2) The new ST plan calls for both Link and buses to use the bus tunnel, which will be cumbersome for both. Delays for one mode will necessarily translate into delays for the other. 3) In the alternatives modeled by ST, the light rail plan had a higher transfer rate than the bus alternatives. If the numbers of transfers needed to complete a trip are important, why is it that this information has not been included? Perhaps Pascall should have said, The light rail plan proposed by ST appears to be at a disadvantage vs an improved bus system.|
|Congestion: Pascall again fails to consult STs own final environmental impact statement for data that might illuminate the question. The Link Final Environmental Impact Statement shows that the project will make traffic congestion slightly worse than the poorly designed Bus alternative at a majority of the intersections modeled by ST.|
|Operating costs: Pascall claims to compare bus and rail operating costs. The transit industry has standard metrics for measuring operating costs, and good data is readily available for local transit service, as well as estimates for the light rail service planned by ST. So, wheres the comparison? Nowhere. The common measures of operating cost are: cost per vehicle hour, cost per vehicle mile, cost per boarding, and cost per passenger mile. Of these, light rail typically fares poorly on the first two, and usually does better on the last two. But even after sacrificing disproportionate capital costs required for rail, comparing cost per passenger mile for light rail and a bus alternative, in the same corridor, would show that bus lines are nearly always more cost effective. What rail partisans recurrently do is compare operating costs for rail in a high-capacity corridor, against buses in outlying routes, or in general operations, good routes and poor. In a head-to-head, honest comparison, in the same or similar corridors, buses generally prevail with lower operating costs, per passenger mile.|
|The Alternative: Pascall quotes Aaron Ostrom "You cant chase people out of their cars, with penalties or incentives, until you have an attractive alternative to chase them to. Light rail is that alternative." Link will serve but a tiny percentage of trips, even in the city of Seattle. The 31 light rail cars Sound Transit now proposes to operate on its initial segment will add a mere 2,300 seats of transit capacity, a very costly, small increase to the 75,000+ seats already in service with the existing bus fleet. To compound matters, Link will serve only 14 stations, and none north of downtown. So, far from providing an attractive alternative, for all but a few commuters, Link will absorb enormous resources and provide no alternative. If our expansive region hopes to draw more people out of their cars, buses will be the only public transportation mode that connects enough origins to destinations, and adds sufficient capacity, to make that happen. If Glenn Pascall had bothered to look, he would have discovered that Sound Transits own numbers show that Link is simply hopeless in that regard.|
|Transit ridership: Pascall states that transit ridership nationally has been growing since 1996. There is some truth to this, but it fails to tell the whole story. He fails to mention that the vast majority of this increase was due to increased ridership in New York City, as a result of allowing free transfers between buses and subways. Nearly everywhere else around the country transit mode share has continued to decline, with cities that have built light rail systems faring no better than cities that didnt.|
|Pascall cites the "Washington State Transportation Authority" as saying that transit ridership in Washington grew 63% from 1990 to 1998. That would be a remarkable achievement, but it isnt true. The total increase in transit passenger trips in Washington state from 1990 to 1998 was about 30%, which is still an impressive performance, considering that was accomplished without the vast resources that Sound Transit could apply to the task, if only it used its resources to good effect. I have worked as a transit planner in Washington State for many years, and have never heard of the Washington State Transportation Authority. What is this group?|
|Free up bus service hours: On page 18 Mr. Pascall again quotes Aaron Ostrom, to the effect that Link will improve travel time for many bus users and free up service hours. Ostrom claims that Link will "free up about 300,000 annual hours for redeployment." A look at the Link plan shows both claims are erroneous. It was initially hoped that Link would free up several hundred thousand annual hours of bus service--but these early estimates were based on a far more extensive Link system. As now proposed, Link will free up very few bus service hours. To make matters worse, because large numbers of buses will be forced out of the tunnel and onto the slower surface streets, the transit operators will need more service hours to maintain existing service levels. If that werent bad enough, ST has admitted that the joint bus/rail tunnel operation now proposed will provide slower travel times through the tunnel than either an all bus or all rail operation.|
|Transfers: Ostroms assertion that the restructured bus service will somehow result in fewer transfers is suspect. STs own modeling of the system shows a higher transfer rate. All of this information is available for researchers willing to look and willing to ask the right questions, and is essential data for accurately comparing Link with Bus alternatives.|
|Maxed-out money vs. maxed-out space: Pascall claims that in Seattle, "A bus-only approach maxes-out street capacity while a rail approach maxes-out funding capacity (and crowds out facilities like the Seattle tunnel if it is the primary mode)." This is at best half right. A rail approach does "max-out" STs funding, and it does so long before the system is extensive enough to solve any of the regions transportation problems. But the problem is actually much worse, because the Link plan makes much less efficient use of the tunnel than an optimized bus alternative. So the light rail approach fails on both counts, squanders both money and space.|
|Market share: Again Pascall seems intent on avoiding the industry standard measures of mode share and on avoiding STs own data that bears on this issue. According to STs forecasts, Link will have only a tiny impact on regional mode share. Pascall suggests that the measure that counts is market share in the case of "transit-competitive trips," that is, those trips where transit service is a reasonable option. But he fails to acknowledge that the high cost and geographic constraints faced by rail systems, mean that there will be few markets in which rail can compete. How much the transit and HOV mode share could be increased by improving bus service and offering incentives to car-pool is the key question, which Pascall hasnt even asked, much less answered.|
|Comparisons with Chicago: Pascall cites Chicagos 50-50% transit mode share to the CBD as evidence of rails efficacy. He says, "METRA light rails share was 21% in 1990 and has probably risen." That's a mysterious statement, since METRA, which provides commuter rail service in the Chicago area, does not operate any light rail lines. There are no surface light rail lines in Chicago. Chicago is served by a large volume of commuter rail service, but it isnt comparable to the proposed Link light rail line. Sound Transit provides a little bit of very expensive commuter service on the BNSF tracks, but since Seattle doesnt have a dense network of underused railroad lines coming into the city from three directions, like Chicago does, the comparison breaks down.|
|Grade separation: Pascall claims that grade-separated rail can run faster than buses. Well, yes, a grade separated train is likely to operate at higher speed than a bus stuck in traffic. But this comparison is not applicable to the Seattle situation. Much of the Link project will not be grade separated, and ST has already stated that the expected operating speed will average only 24mph. In contrast, much of the commuter bus service provided by Metro, Sound Transit and Community Transit, operate on nearly 200 miles of HOV lanes that average well above 24mph even during congested rush hours. Again, Pascall has not provided the information necessary to make an informed comparison, even though much of that data is readily available.|