Saturday, September 14, 2013

Deceptions on transit solutions don't help

As transportation nerds, particularly as it affects Tampa Bay, we try to keep on top of the latest messaging from the pro-transit fronts.  Whatever you're position is on transit, and we're not anti-transit as long as there  is transparency and truth about the projects, particularly on their costs, funding and ridership revenues.  But the proponents do themselves no good when they are deceptive in their messaging. Here's a couple of a cases in point.

Recently, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) decided to fight transit foes with a series of infographics, which got some wide spread "see, we told you so" from some local transit proponents.  Unfortunately, these "infographics" are extremely misleading or downright lies. Let's take a look at a couple of them:

CATS Infographic ridership claims
CATS is stating that transit foes believe the initial rider projections are inflated, yet Charlotte actually achieved a 53% increase over its initial projects.  Who's right?

Well, Baruch Feigenbaum at actually looked at some numbers.
Supposed Myth According to CATS: Light rail ridership projections are inflated.
CATS claim: Charlotte’s light rail ridership for the opening year was 53% over forecast.
Reality: Long-term light rail ridership projections for Charlotte are inflated.
How CATS spun this: CATS actually released three different ridership figures. When it submitted the proposal to the federal government, it submitted a ridership forecast of 25,700. Then, after it received federal funding, it revised its forecast downward to 18,100. Finally, before the line opened it revised its forecast downward again to 9,100. Since, CATS used the 25,700 number to get federal funding, that is the correct number to use in calculations. To be charitable we calculated the percentages for the 18,100 figure as well.

Light rail ridership for the opening year was 30% under the official forecast and 8% over the revised forecast. Light rail ridership today is 47% under the official forecast and 25% under the revised forecast.

According to calculations from the National Transit Database, at the end of its first full year LYNX ridership averaged 19,700 daily riders. However, the forecast the agency provided to the federal government for funding indicated 25,700 weekday riders. And the agency’s revised forecast of 18,100 is similar to LYNX’s best year.

How did LYNX get the 53% over figure? It used rail ridership forecasts for the opening year of 9,100 riders, which the agency deliberately low-balled to make ridership look high.
Looks like someone was cooking the books.

Here's another:
Another misleading infographic from Charlotte
CATS claims:
[This] infographic opposes the belief that LYNX carries fewer people than a single lane of Interstate 77. One lane of I-77 through Charlotte moves, on average, about 2,200 travelers in a single hour. In contrast, LYNX can carry anywhere from 3,120 to 6,240 people an hour, depending on headways and number of cars to a train.
This obviously an apples and oranges comparison.  Its comparing the average of a single lane of I-77, which I assume has multiple lanes that are already well traveled, to a fully utilized light rail, which, like roads, are not always highly utilized.  Furthermore,
CATS Claim: One lane of I-77 can move 2,200 people per hour, LYNX could transport 6,240 people per hour.
Reality: Charlotte light rail carries far fewer people than a lane of I-77. For every passenger the LRT line moves, I-77 moves 5.7.
How CATS spun this: Of all CATS’ claims this comes the closest to being an outright lie. According to transit consultant Tom Rubin, on a weekday CATS currently carries approximately 4,054 passengers per directional route mile while I-77 moves approximately 23,471. According to basic math 23,471 is a lot larger than 4,054.

CATS further assumes total occupancy of 236 to justify its claim. It also assumes that trains will expand to 3 cars. But the current 2-car trains are underutilized so why would it expand them to three? Accepting the 3 car trains, this would require squeezing passengers into cars like sardines, something that works in China but will never work in Charlotte. And the high number of passengers will decrease the number of trains per hour that operate since full trains take longer to load and unload. (I realize Charlotte does not have experience with really full trains but that's how it works in New York City and Washington D.C. where they do.)
Do the transit proponents not think this through?  They're not really helping themselves.

You can read more of the takedown from Reason on CATS here.

But they're not the only one.

Recently, the Hillsborough MPO and ConnectTB tweeted this.
Curious, we had to look at the link.   It's from, a public transit advocacy group.  Turns out the source of much of this data is from a 2009 study, American Public Transport Association (APTA) Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment.  APTA is a lobbying group, and is paid to promote the transit industry.

Some of the statements on the "fact sheet" include:
  • Every $1 billion invested in public transportation capital and operations creates and supports an average of 36,000 jobs.
  • Federal investment provides more than $10 billion annually for public transportation. This investment creates jobs and helps transit systems meet the demand for public transit services.
  • For every $1 invested in public transportation, $4 is generated in economic returns. Every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation can return up to $30 million in business sales alone.
  • An individual can achieve an average annual savings of more than $9,700 by taking public transportation instead of driving and by living with one less car.
  • etc. etc.
There is not a single citation in the "fact sheet".  But let's apply some sniff tests.
  • Every $1 billion invested in public transportation capital and operations creates and supports an average of 36,000 jobs.
What does "create and support" mean?  There is no definition for "support" of a job.  Is it supporting a job if someone takes transit to work?  What if they are able to take other modes of transportation?  Is that still support?  If somebody buys a hot dog from a vendor near a rail station, does that count?  What kind of jobs are we talking about, anyway?

Here in Tampa Bay, we were ground zero for the Florida High Speed Rail debate, which Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected in 2011.  The route was 84 miles from Tampa to Orlando, with 5 stops, and really, not so high speed, but that's another story.  The costs estimates were around $2.5B.
High speed rail
How many jobs were being projected?  The media was citing 20,000 jobs over and over, and some up to 60,000 jobs. That seemed like a lot to me, so I checked the Florida DOT site (since taken down), and the real numbers?  20,000 job years, over the construction of the HSR, with a peak year construction of 8,000 jobs (Politifact cites 10,000, but I recall the DOT numbers).  So not really 20,000 jobs.

What was Florida DOT forecasting for ongoing jobs post construction?  500.  

Just a little off that 36,000.

Charlotte should be happy.  They're spending $1.2B for 9.3 miles of light rail for the second leg of the Lynx, so they'll be creating and supporting over 36,000 jobs, right?  It's obviously a good thing for Charlotte I'm told, whose unemployment rate is 9.5% as of July 2013, and they already have light rail.  Hillsborough County should be so lucky, as we only have a an unemployment rate of 7.1%, and we don't have light rail.  How can that be?

Over the last several years, many municipalities have invested in light rail systems -- Denver, Charlotte, Seattle, Portland, Austin, St. Louis, ... Yet we still have high unemployment.  How can that be?

They should be "creating and supporting" some kind of jobs, right?

Lets's take on another:
  • An individual can achieve an average annual savings of more than $9,700 by taking public transportation instead of driving and by living with one less car.
Fine, sell your car, take transit, and you've got $9,700 extra in your pocket.  You no longer have car payments, insurance, fuel costs, maintenance, etc.   It's your choice.  

But most transit systems only recovery about 20  - 30% of their costs from the fare box. That $2 fare really costs about $10, so the taxpayers are picking up $8 of the costs.

But if you are able, and say, have an extra $9,700 and are now a fan of transit and its great conveniences, should you not pay your full and fair share? That would be $10, please. After all, its the right thing to do, isn't it?

Good news! You can save money by selling your car and riding transit instead. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) says the average person can save $8,500 a year taking transit instead of owning a car.

This is based on the AAA cost-of-driving formula, which says that driving costs an average of $0.54 cents per vehicle mile. Funny how Americans only actually spend $0.39 cents a vehicle mile, at least according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The difference? The BEA uses actual costs while AAA numbers are hypothetical.

So that might reduce the savings to only $6,100, which is still a lot. But the other big thing APTA is leaving out is the huge subsidies to transit. Transit subsidies amount to $0.61 per passenger mile. APTA assumed that, prior to giving up their car, the transit rider drove 15,000 miles a year. At $0.61 per mile, a transit rider who rides 15,000 miles a year gets about $9,150 in subsidies.

So you can save, maybe, $6,100 a year by imposing more than $9,100 in costs on other taxpayers. Good deal!
There are more of these deceptions and falsehoods.  I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to debunk more.  But you get the point.  The transit proponents feel the need to cook the books.  Why?

If transit proponents want it to work, they really have to start with an honest, open and transparent analysis of what works, what doesn't and the REAL costs and funding involved.  By hiding behind misleading and deceptive statements, "infographics", and "fact sheets", they are harming their mission.  These are so easy to take down, it raises further doubt in their ability to deliver on their promises.  Mistrust of our government is running high these days, and these deceptions do not help.

The core of the problem is transit projects have been over promised and under delivered again and again.

The sooner transit proponents apply some honest introspection on their failures, and develop realistic  plans to deliver on revised promises, then perhaps we can all get behind a reasonable and balanced discussion on transportation futures.  

Until then, we'll continue to hold them accountable for their deceptions.

Actually, we'll always hold them accountable. 

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