Governor Larry Hogan delivered on some major campaign promises June 25 announcing about $2 billion for road projects while cutting fancy ‘light rail’ spending.
“Building, maintaining and fixing Maryland’s roads and bridges is our top transportation priority,” Hogan said. The money will see some 84 ready projects move forward across the state.
As expected, Governor Hogan is dumping the $2.6 billion-odd light rail project in Baltimore, but he says his administration is prepared to continue with “a more cost-effective and streamlined version” of the Purple light rail line – Bethesda to New Carrollton. He says his administration will shoulder $168 million versus $700 million committed by former Governor Martin O’Malley to what was costed at about $2.5 billion.
This requires savings in the purchase of fewer rail cars (and lesser frequency of trains) plus increased contributions by Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties.
All these are moves in the right direction. The light rail projects are a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars both in construction and then in operating losses in years to come. And the numbers of people they promise to serve is highly speculative. Even at the promised numbers, they shape up as hugely expensive per rider.
Northern Virginia’s Silver Line is working out expensive at $240 million per mile construction cost, but Maryland’s light rail projects are not far behind at $150 million per mile for the Purple Line and $180-plus million per mile for the Red Line. And that’s before cost overruns!
Now the Silver Line is a ‘heavy rail’ service in a fully grade-separated right of way running trains as long as eight cars, and with a design that allows 70mph running speeds.
Light rail is a kind of bastard design – a cross between a trolley/streetcar and a metro rail, limited by a lot of in-street operation (2 or 3 car trains, 30mph running speeds) that manages to incur a large proportion of the construction costs of the metro.
The Red Line had a central heavy rail type underground section over 3 miles long with five deep stations through downtown Baltimore – a ‘big dig’ kind of project horrendously difficult to manage to a budget. Much of the remainder is at-grade, an environment in which an interface has to be managed with motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. Cross-streets are often closed, turns are more difficult and street space is consumed.
The Purple Line is almost all at-grade, making for easier, cheaper construction but maximizing interface problems with other modes. Average speed on the Purple line will be barely 15 mph, calling into question its ability to attract riders from other modes. (Bicycles regularly sustain 15mph!) In neither case will road congestion be improved according to the modeling.
Brookings Institution economists Winston and Maheshri (Journal of Urban Economics July 2006) compiled data on the characteristics and performance of 25 rail systems and their urban environments, modeling how they might be adapted to pay their way and produce benefits greater than their costs.
Their finding: It can’t be done. Rail in none of its forms can attract the volumes of riders needed to cover its high costs in most American cities because cars, buses and roads provide better service at much lower cost.
They concluded: “We find for all systems that the welfare optimizing (mileage) of track is zero… no optimal size for any (rail) transit system exists that enables it to generate enough consumer surplus and revenue to offset its (costs.)”
Growth and Jobs?
Economic development? This and the jobs is the most frequently touted benefit from the Red and Purple lines. Winston and Mahreshri found no measurable net effect from any of the new rail systems – just rearrangement of development with more development close to rail stops, but offset by less development elsewhere. The light rail boosters forget to mention the offsetting change on the negative side of the ledger.
The ‘Four area megaprojects compared’ panel (click on image below) I drafted shows the cost problem suffered by the light rail projects.
I’ve gone out of my way to give them the benefit of the doubt – for example using their forecast ridership numbers (likely to be lower) and estimated costs (likely to be higher.) And I’ve used current average link volumes on 495 where we use total trips on the rail lines. So the discrepancy shown is likely to understate road’s cost advantage.
Selfdrive Technology and Roads
Looking ahead ten or fifteen years the implementation of sensing and communications technologies will enable roads and rubber-tired vehicles to get much further ahead. Selfdrive technologies will (1) turn drive-time into talk-time, internet time, email time, etc.; (2) allow cars to be run closer together for greater throughput; and (3) enable automatic valet parking. Digital mapping and matching apps are just beginning to support carpooling, ride shares, casual taxi work (Uber, Lyft, Vride, Zimride… the list goes on). Roads have advantages of flexibility and adaptability needed for the quick adoption of these kinds of productivity enhancing innovations.
Governor Hogan had little to lose politically by simply dumping the Red Line as a “wasteful boondoggle.” He could have acknowledged however that it leaves downtown Baltimore with poor connections to the Woodlawn area at the end of I-70. Some new pavement-based link is, I suggest, worth a study.
Politics and the Purple Line
The Purple Line as transportation is just as much a ‘boondoggle’ as the Red Line, perhaps more so. Crosstown routings like the Purple Line have a worse record than downtown-oriented rail. And the Purple Line is slower.
Politics however favored the Purple Line. It is fully designed and ready to go. And it is quicker and easier to build than the Red, more likely to produce a ribbon-cutting within a governor’s term of office. Governor Hogan has much more at stake politically in Montgomery County than in Baltimore. Getting the counties to contribute more, and slimming the cost a little is also smart politics.
At a recent (June 12) Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance (SMTA) ‘summit’ there were many calls for “political leadership” on three of the bigger projects, especially the Maryland Beltway Bethesda east, the I-270/495 corridor, and an ICC-VA28 link with a new Potomac River bridge.
Governor Hogan and Secretary Pete Rahn clearly think they have a big job to do with the $2 billion program they’ve announced, and understandably are reluctant to even think about SMTA’s three highway megaprojects.
Project Self-Sufficiency for Mega Undertakings
I think it would help, as suggested in a previous piece, if they were to spell out a principle of project self-sufficiency – encouraging private sector initiative in developing big projects that can pay their way with fees for use (tolls).
After all, that’s the way Virginia got its I-495 express lanes and rebuild, and improvements for cars and buses on I-95 and the Dulles Greenway.
Let the private sector wrestle with alternative routings and traffic studies and all that!
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Peter Samuel of British and Australian upbringing has an academic background in economics, finance, and urban planning. In the U.S. from 1980 to 1992 he wrote as a daily reporter on defense and foreign policy. Then, as a freelance writer, he specialized in critical writing on the environmental movement. A longtime friend of Robert Poole, he wrote first on roads for Poole’s Reason magazine: click here. An article on toll roads commissioned by Forbes magazine in 1996 led him to specialize in reporting on the toll-roads business, first in a low circulation monthly Toll Roads Newsletter, that he established, then in the web-based TOLLROADSnews, which he sold to new management at the end of 2013. In the U.S. since 1980 he has lived in the New York area, in N.W. Washington D.C., and since 1992 in Frederick County, Maryland. He currently lives in 19th century downtown Frederick.