Tag Archives: mass transit

Hey, Uber, Over Here! Over Here!

Dara Khosrowshahi. Photo credit: Fortune

So, Uber decides to use Washington, D.C., as a test bed for its vision for urban mobility. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi visited Washington Wednesday to publicize company plans to expand its ride-hailing app so customers can access and pay for bike share, car rentals from private car owners, and eventually mass transit.

And what does Washington do? Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has proposed increasing the gross receipt tax on ride-hailing companies from 1% to 4.75%. The tax revenue would pay for about 10% of Washington’s $178.5 million share of increased funding for Washington Metro. (Virginia and Maryland and providing the balance — without taxing Uber.)

Interesting economic development strategy Bowser has there: Tax businesses in the growing innovation economy to subsidize enterprises in the stagnant, money-losing old economy.

Uber’s idea is potentially so transformative that slapping $18 million added tax on the ride-hailing industry may not prove debilitating. (Not for Uber anyway. I’m less sanguine about its weaker competitors.) But one thing we can say for sure: The tax will not accelerate Washington’s evolution toward the transportation future.

“What we want to make sure is that you’re not taxing one form of shared transportation for another form of shared transportation,” Khowrowshahi said in a public meeting with Bowser, reports the Washington Post. “We’re in this to promote shared transportation in general. We want to make sure that proposals like this are not unconstructive to that goal.”

City officials, notes the Post, say the ride-hailing services have benefited from Metro’s problems so it’s only fair that they be part of the solution.

 

 

Bacon’s bottom line: Hey, Uber, come look at Virginia — we won’t tax you!

Your one-stop-transportation-shopping app sounds like a fantastic idea. I can hardly wait until you develop AI that allows people to map multimodal trips integrating everything from walking and biking to gypsy vans and buses to hour-long car rentals. I’m eagerly waiting for a full range of transportation services at varying levels of convenience, comfort and price. If you put a few money-losing public mass-transit enterprises out of business, I won’t have a problem with that. I’d love to put an end to the drain on taxpayers. Likewise, if you force public enterprises to adapt by cutting costs and becoming more responsive to customers, I’m totally cool with that, too!

I regard Bowser’s logic — Uber is part of Metro’s problem, therefore you should be taxed to help fix it — as wildly illogical. You should be allowed to compete on a level playing field with all other transportation business models. I hope you understand, however, that does include paying your fair share of the cost of maintaining and building the road and highway infrastructure that you rely upon. Who knows, you might end up paying more in taxes that way. But at least you wouldn’t be subsidizing the competition.

One more thing, Virginia has localities that would love to cooperate with you. Take Virginia Beach. The resort city has plans for development of its waterfront that include a drop-off zone for ride-hailing services. How cool is that? If cities can provide drop-off zones for buses — typically referred to as bus stops — why not drop-off zones for ride-hailing services? That’s something that municipalities can do at next-to-no cost.

Here in Virginia, we want to accelerate the development of a 21st century model for transportation, not tax it. Use us as a test bed. Please!

Pony Up, D.C. Or Else!

Uh, oh, the Metro funding deal isn’t sealed yet. The Washington, D.C., city council could be the spoiler. While Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has asked council to back a $178.5 million annual increase in funding for the commuter rail system to go along with $154 million from Virginia and $150 from Maryland, a council faction by Chairman Phil Mendelson is balking.

Reports the Washington Post:

Mendelson (D) and five other council members sent Bowser a letter late Wednesday saying the city should give Metro only $167 million a year. The letter also says the District should contribute no more than Virginia and Maryland, contrary to the Virginia plan that stipulates each jurisdiction make a proportional contribution based on a funding formula that takes into account things such as ridership, population and number of Metro stations. …

Repeating arguments made by city officials in the past, Mendelson and the council members said that formula is unfair to the city, partly because the District has a smaller population than the Virginia and Maryland suburbs served by Metro.

But, as the Post points out, the District has 40 Metro stations, compared to 26 in Maryland and 25 in Virginia.

Furthermore, I’d add, the reason Metro finances are a wreck is that D.C. representatives on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board have insisted on not increasing fares and have been supportive of labor agreements that have run up operating costs and built up massive unfunded retirement liabilities. Virginia needs to stick to its guns, and D.C. needs to pony up $178.5 million.

Approving Metro’s Bare-Bones Capital Budget

Over the weekend the General Assembly agreed to give the Washington Metro $154 million a year in permanent new funding on the condition that Maryland and Washington, D.C., make up the balance of $500 million in new funding, reports the Washington Post. Maryland has passed its own $150 million funding bill, and the District will likely approve at least $150 million more.

Let’s assume for a moment that all the details are worked out, that all three jurisdictions come up with $450 million to $500 million a year for Metro, and that Congress adds $150 million a year to what the federal government has been contributing. Does this latest injection of money get the troubled bus and commuter-rail system out of the woods?

Metro has identified $25 billion in capital “needs” over the next 10 years. The bulk of these needs entail SGR (state of good repair) investments of $15.5 billion to maintain existing capital assets necessary for system preservation. The $25 billion figure also includes $7 billion in “new” needs which “address remediation of hazards or crowding on the rail system in core areas,” plus “unallocated” needs that include regular repairs and maintenance and services.

The added $600 million a year from Uncle Sam, the District, and the states will suffice to cover the critical state-of-good-repair needs and nothing else. Here’s what taxpayers will get for their money:

  • Replacing the 1000-series rail cars, installing a new radio system and cellular infrastructure, and replacing track circuits and power cabling where necessary.
  • Replacing power cable insulators on deep tunnels of the Red Line and other lines particularly where water intrusion occurs, which can disrupt service or cause the need for more frequent and costly repairs.
  • Replacing worn components of track and tunnels on all lines, necessary for safety and service delivery.
  • Upgrading the signaling system, which controls the movement and speed of trains, necessary for safe operations and on-time service delivery.

Nothing fancy here. Hopefully, these investments will reverse the deteriorating quality of service that has caused so many riders to desert Metro. But many desired investments will not be made. I have seen no analysis of what that portends for the quality of service.

The proposed FY 2019 budget for Metro includes no fare increases or service reductions. The operating budget assumes that management can limit spending growth to $12 million, or less than one percent “despite cost growth for legacy commitments, mandates and inflation.”

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld acknowledges that there are “substantial and ongoing risks” in the proposed 2019 budget. Foremost among these are ridership uncertainties in response to telework, gas prices, alternative transportation modes; collective bargaining; and unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: I continue to believe that the emerging Uber-like Mobility-as-a-Service transportation model poses an enormous threat to all existing transportation modes — both the own-it-yourself automobile model and fixed-route mass transit model. In an affluent society, there will always be some people who want to own their own automobiles allowing them to travel when they wish and with whom they wish, so privately owned automobiles will always be with us. But I’m not confident that there will always be people who prefer to ride in fixed-route, fixed-schedule buses and trains instead of flexible-route and flexible-schedule buses, vans, and cars.

I’m pretty sure that Metro, no matter how competently managed, will continue to loser riders, and that it will be coming back to taxpayers with tin cup in hand in another 10 years. If declining ridership doesn’t do the trick, unfunded retirement liabilities will.

Who Needs a Car, or Bus, When You’ve Got Uber?

The Uber revolution keeps on churning. The transportation service company has finally rolled out a service in the Washington region that resembles the kind of ride-hailing jitney service that I long predicted eventually would enter the marketplace. This service is potentially so disruptive that it could drive public mass transit out of the market for all but the highest-volume transportation corridors — although Uber denies that such is its aim.

From the Washington Post:

Beginning Wednesday … riders will be directed to pickup points within two blocks of their origin and dropped off within two blocks of their destinations, according to Uber. Riders will endure a slightly longer wait for a driver match — up to two minutes — while Uber works to place them along the optimal route. They then will be instructed where to catch their ride.

The perk for riders? Discounted trips. Express Pool is up to 50 percent cheaper than ride-splitting option UberPool and 75 percent cheaper than UberX, the door-to-door ride-hailing service, Uber says.

Finding rides won’t be a problem. Uber has 50,000 active drivers in the Washington region.

Hopefully, local governments will not throw roadblocks in Uber’s way to protect their local transit authorities. Rather, they should ask themselves what they can do to make the service operate more efficiently. In particular, they should proactively brainstorm with Uber to see how to make it easy for riders to congregate at loading spots and for Uber drivers to access them without blocking traffic.

This Metro Deal Literally Smells

As the General Assembly debates the state’s contribution to the bailing out of the Washington Metro system, Virginians are continually reminded of the company’s history of dysfunctional management. The latest news from the Washington Post:

An investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General has found that the grimey, orangey-brown, 1970s-era carpet installed in Metro trains are the product of “exceedingly stringent” requirements likely written to favor one supplier. The 100 percent pure virgin wool specification is no longer in use in the industry.

The recently concluded investigation found Metro’s standards for its carpeting were unchanged for two decades and that no other vendor could plausibly compete for the contract.

Moreover, the carpet lacked a required coating to prevent fungus and mildew, according to Metro Inspector General Geoff Cherrington — though it did meet standards for being fire-resistant and mothproof.

Further investigation found the carpet’s compliance testing was not being performed by an independent facility, as Metro requires, but by a laboratory with ties to the carpet manufacturer.

“The director of the lab used by the vendor is married to the Chief Financial Officer of the company that provided the vendor a line of credit” for the carpet order, according to a synopsis of the investigation included in a report to the Metro board.

Over the years, the WaPo reports, the carpet became known for collecting dirt and grime. “Riders are especially put off by the way it soaks up liquids — be it rain, slush, spilled beverages or um, other fluids — and smells.”

Meanwhile, back in the General Assembly, Republicans are far less amenable than Democrats to providing Metro the $150 million a year in additional support the ailing mass transit agency has requested to work down a maintenance backlog that has contributed to safety incidents, schedule delays, and declining ridership.

The new version of a bill sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has been unanimously approved by the House Transportation Committee and will serve as the basis for negotiations with the state Senate over a final Metro funding bill, reports WTOP. Hugo’s proposal would provide Metro $105 million a year, less than the roughly $150 million requested, and provide the funds only if Metro limits operating spending increases to 2 percent per year.

Further, the bill requires studies and reports on Metro’s governance, labor agreements and the federal law that outlines arbitration rules. “Reforms have to go hand in hand with the money,” Hugo said.

Unlike the proposal recommended by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Republican proposal would not immediately require changes to Metro’s Board.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is Virginia’s one opportunity to hang tough and demand long overdue managerial, labor and governance reforms to Metro. Once legislation is passed and the money starts flowing, the Commonwealth loses all leverage over the mass transit system. While the current senior management appears to be more competent then its predecessors, the mal-governance of the system has been spectacular, and it costing Virginia taxpayers (especially Northern Virginia taxpayers) dearly. Without fundamental reform, Metro will remain a festering, oozing, pustular sore that will continue to drain Virginia’s scarce transportation resources.

Want Amazon? Fix Metro, says Wiedefeld.

If Virginians want Amazon to locate HQ2, its second headquarters, in the Washington area, they need to help fix Metro, the region’s ailing commuter rail service. That was part of the message delivered by Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld yesterday to the House Appropriation Committee’s Transportation subcommittee.

The Metro needs at least $15.5 billion in capital spending over the next decade to address a massive maintenance backlog, address safety issues and keep commuter trains running on time. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe included $150 million a year for Metro in the state budget on the condition that Maryland and Washington, D.C. contribute their share.

A functional Metro is crucial to winning Amazon, which has indicated it will invest $5 billion in a new headquarters complex, Wiedefeld told legislators, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“They want transit, and they want it to work well,” said Wiedefeld, who told the delegates that he has cut hundreds of positions, revised ethics and nepotism policies, and imposed controls on workers’ compensation and employee absenteeism in his efforts to right what has been seen as a woefully mismanaged transit system. WMATA also now has its first-ever preventive maintenance program, he said.

Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland are among the 20 locations that made Amazon’s top 20 list of prospects for its second headquarters complex. Amazon has declared that mass transit is a key factor in its site-selection process.

Bacon’s bottom line: It would be helpful to know what inducements Virginia has offered the technology giant to choose a location near Washington Dulles International Airport, but it is standard practice not to reveal such details. Likewise, it would be easier to justify shelling out extra billions for the Metro if we knew the odds of landing Amazon, but Amazon is not about to tip its hand. As usual, legislators and the public are in the dark, trying to make a multibillion-dollar decision on the basis of incomplete information.

A New Generation of Fuzzy Thinkers for Henrico

Henrico County has flipped from a majority-Republican to a majority-Democrat board of supervisors. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. If Democrats nudge the county toward more rational, Smart Growth-like land use patterns — more infill, more density, more mixed use, more walkability — it could be a good thing. If they push the county into ill-thought-out spending initiatives, it could be a bad thing.

Based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage of a two-day board retreat, it looks like spending will top the list. The three Democratic members of the board indicated their desire to expand the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company) Route 19 to the Short Pump retail center at an estimated cost of $800,000 annually.

The purported benefit is greater access for job seekers. Tyrone E. Nelson, representing the Varina district at the east end of the county, said he could not understand why a county with a budget of nearly $1 billion had not yet devoted funds to bring bus service to the employment center. “I still don’t understand why it’s like pulling teeth to get public transportation to Short Pump. This is a 2018 need.”

His fellow Democrats expressed the same sentiment. “We’re not doing enough for job access,” said newly elected Courtney Lynch. “When you look at things we should spend money on, this should be something where we can get creative and get things done.”

Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that helping people gain access to jobs is a worthy goal. We want people to work so they can support themselves and their families. In Henrico County, the poorest residents tend to live in the far east end of the county, far from the affluent Short Pump commercial district where many jobs are available. GRTC already runs buses out Broad Street to Costco, and the expansion would extend the service a few miles more at seemingly modest cost.

That makes sense as a starting point for an inquiry: Hey, extending the bus line just a couple miles more would provide passengers access to a whole bunch of jobs they can’t reach now. Let’s take a closer look and see if it makes economic sense. From what I glean from the Times-Dispatch article and county documents, however, the supervisors skipped that let’s-see-if-it-makes-economic-sense step.

Henrico County Public Works has posted a slide presentation online covering proposed investments in roads, highways, sidewalks, bike trails, and mass transit. The slides contain a lot of information, but not everything that we, as citizens need to reach an informed conclusion. Perhaps the speaker making the slide presentation had more to say about the economics of bus service, but there is no indication of it in the Times-Dispatch article.

Let’s start with the map at atop this post. The big blue circle on the right is Mr. Nelson’s supervisor district. The small blue circle on the left is the Short Pump employment center. To get there, Nelson’s job-seeking constituents must take the bus into downtown Richmond where they would transfer to another bus running out to Short Pump.

The first question is how many passengers avail themselves of the bus service to access retail and service jobs along Broad Street at present? One hundred a day? A thousand? Ten thousand? Presumably, existing passenger loads would give us an order-of-magnitude idea of what might be expected if we extended the line. Alas, existing passenger numbers are not provided.

The more pertinent question is how many additional passengers are projected to avail themselves of the bus service going all the way to Short Pump. Again, in orders of magnitude, are we walking about 100 passengers, 1,000, or 10,000? This would seem to be a critical matter because, if the new service costs $800,000 a year to operate to benefit 100 passengers daily, we’re talking about an annual subsidy of $8,000 per passenger — an extraordinary sum. Why not just buy each passenger a new car? If we’re talking about benefiting 10,000 passengers, then the subsidy is only $80 per passenger, a nominal sum in which the social and tax benefits clearly outweigh the expenditure. If we’re talking about something in between, then the decision is not so clear.

As always, we should ask if there are alternative expenditures of money that would yield greater social benefits. Eight hundred thousand dollars is a nice chunk of change. I were a supervisor representing Nelson’s district, I would convene a meeting of GRTC, Uber, Lyft, Bridj, and other transportation-service companies and ask them, what kind of service could you provide my constituents for $800,000 worth of subsidies? Could you provide more point-to-point service providing more convenient schedules and shorter travel times, making it even easier to make the trip and find a job? Can you come up with a more imaginative solution than simply extending the existing bus schedule?

When such basic questions go unasked, we can be assured that money will be ill spent. Truly, Henrico has entered a new era — from one in which it made lousy land use decisions to one in which it will make lousy spending decisions.

The Political Economy of the Metro Bailout

Funding for Washington’s Metro commuter rail system is shaping up as a bruiser of a fight in the 2018 General Assembly session.

Metro’s management says it needs at least $500 million yearly in government support — $150 million from Virginia — to meet pressing maintenance needs. Without the money, Metro will continue its slow-motion death spiral of cycle of deteriorating safety, schedule delays, eroding ridership, and declining fare revenue. Without the money, Metro’s General Manager has said he will need to cut service in July 1 this year.

While Northern Virginia legislators are eager to patch up the ailing transit provider, which moves hundreds of thousands of commuters, downstate lawmakers won’t be happy about any solution that reduces funding for downstate projects. And Republicans won’t like any remedy that perpetuates the status quo of a broken, dysfunctional rail system hampered by a featherbedding union contract.

In his proposed biennial budget for FY 2019-2020, Governor Terry McAuliffe asked for $150 million in dedicated funding for Metro; $84 million would come from Northern Virginia regional transportation funds, while $65 million would come from new taxes on real estate sales, hotel stays, and wholesale gasoline. Providing the money would be contingent upon Maryland and Washington, D.C., funding their share, and a streamlining of Metro’s governing board from 16 members to five.

“The Metro system is a lifeline for the Northern Virginia economy, and it remains critical to our economic competitiveness,” McAuliffe said. “But we all know that system is just plain broken. And it represents a significant threat to our economy if we don’t fix it, and quickly.”

Notably absent from McAuliffe’s list of requirements is any reform of the Metro’s labor contract. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given the Democratic Party’s pro-union orientation generally and its close ties to the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) in particular.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the Alexandria office of the ATU has donated $75,300 to Virginia political campaigns since 2007 — all but $2,000 to Democratic campaigns and funds. The Maryland office of the ATU has donated $44,000, all to Democrats. And Local 689 representing Metro transit workers, has donated $132,269 — all but $250 to Democrats. From all sources, the union contributed $30,000 to the Northam for Governor campaign.

Republicans won’t be happy about funneling $150 million a year more into an organization unwilling to extract concessions from a labor union that in turn funnels money into Democratic Party coffers. Crass political considerations aside, the GOP also has to be concerned that the alliance between Democrats and labor unions is the essence of the Blue State governance model that cements Democratic Party primacy in states like Illinois and New Jersey while pushing them to the brink of fiscal insolvency.

McAuliffe is shrewd enough not to ask downstate Virginians to share the hefty burden of supporting Metro. Virginia’s dispensation of mass transit funds already favors Northern Virginia by lopsided margins. If Metro has problems, that’s because short-term political considerations over the decades have driven Metro to its perilous predicament. Motivated by social justice concerns, the board has refused to raise fares sufficient to meet the organization’s needs. It has allowed the maintenance backlog to build to billions of dollars, and unfunded employee pension obligations to accumulate billions more. All the while, the board has assented to labor contracts that have crimped productivity and inflated costs. Downstate Virginians would be infuriated by any proposal requiring them to help pay the bill for such a dereliction of management.

The question is how Northern Virginia legislators will receive McAuliffe’s proposal. Only a fraction of Northern Virginia commuters ride Metro rail and buses — most commute by car. Tens of thousands of motorists who use the Dulles Toll Road pay additional tolls to help fund construction of the Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport — indeed, they pay more to subsidize the Silver Line than Silver Line passengers pay in fares.

McAuliffe shrewdly rejected the option of a new regional sales tax, a move that surely would have infuriated non-Metro-riding voters. His ploy is a classic one of imposing a series of opaque indirect taxes — levies on real estate transactions, hotel stays, and whole gasoline — that voters will not readily connect with the Metro. But dipping into Northern Virginia’s regional transportation fund will deny money for other projects. Metro could yet trigger an electoral revolt. But most of NoVa’s legislators are Democrats now, they are philosophically inclined to support mass transit, and they are likely to fall in line behind a Democratic governor.

Not a Good Sign: Deadline Missed for Metro Safety Panel

Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., will miss a February deadline for setting up an independent Metro safety oversight group. A realistic time frame for the panel’s launch is another six months, according to Virginia’s Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.

As a result, the Federal Transit Administration has withheld $15.8 million from the two states and the district, reports the Washington Post. The commission launch has been held up by the search for an executive director and six commissioners. Virginia and Maryland have announced their commissioner picks, but D.C. Council has not.

“It’s taken a lot longer than we anticipated with our partners getting together their personnel, but it is what it is,” Layne said. “It’s similar to [Metro]. It’s dealing with different regional issues and the politics of doing that.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. can’t work effectively on an issue as innocuous as Metro rail safety — a goal everyone shares — how will they ever come to agreement over how to fund and operate the Metro itself? There is no consensus on how much to charge passengers. There is no consensus on how to revamp the Metro’s union contract. While there is agreement that the ailing commuter rail system needs billions of dollars to pay for maintenance backlogs, there is no consensus on who should pay. What a mess.

How to Inconvenience Drivers and Punish Businesses for No Discernible Reason

Pulse construction on Broad Street — at a location where construction is actually occurring. (Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch)

One of these days, when Richmond’s Pulse service is running buses up and down the Broad Street corridor, and investors are redeveloping properties around the transit stops, Richmonders will be really glad they have a bus rapid transit system. But until then, residents of the entire metropolitan area can be forgiven for roundly cursing the project.

Construction, which began in August 2016, is still ongoing. The contractor hopes to complete work by the end of the year. In the meantime, the city has closed off two lanes (one lane each way) from automobile traffic, significantly adding to the hassle factor of driving on the transportation artery.

This has been a pet peeve of mine from the very beginning. Miles of Broad Street are afflicted with traffic cones. That would be fine if construction work were actually occurring the full length of the corridor. But it’s not. Work appears to be occur, in a most desultory manner, only at a few locations at a time.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to lose any sleep over Henrico resident Jim Bacon incurring an additional five or ten minutes driving time. But the businesses lining the corridor do warrant consideration, and many of them have suffered a marked decline in business. Richmond City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray has proposed compensating those businesses from a $3.2 million pot of money set aside to reward the contractor, Lane Construction, as an incentive for early completion of the project. The prospects of early completion are fading rapidly, so the idea, it seems to me, does have merit.

Putting up with street construction is an inevitable hazard of living in the city — someone always seems to be patching asphalt, accessing water lines, laying cable — and businesses have to grin and bear it. But cordoning off two lanes along miles of Broad Street for nearly a year and a half seems mind-numbingly unnecessary. I can think of no reason why Lane Construction couldn’t close only those street segments it’s working on when it’s doing the work.

Virginia Department of Transportation contractors put down traffic cones when they’re doing work and pick them up when they’re not. Presumably in adherence to VDOT guidelines, they keep lanes open as much as they can. Why can’t Richmond do the same thing?

Gray could do the public a service by tracking down who in the city public works department approved a construction plan that so unnecessarily inconvenienced drivers and hurt local businesses.