The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

I'm glad to see that some people who serve on government advisory committees provide real oversight and criticism. Today's Mercury News opinion page contains this essay by Greg Perry, Mountain View City councilman and the VTA Policy Advisory Committee member:

The Valley Transportation Authority is in a serious financial crisis. The VTA board and committees have discussed placing another sales tax on the ballot. Before opening our wallets, we should take a good look at why the VTA is in such dire straits.

The problem is not that the VTA is underfunded. It is one of the best-funded transit agencies in the nation, even after the last two years' sales tax decline. The real problem is that the VTA has higher costs than every other major transit agency in the country.

The VTA spends $134 to run a bus for one hour. The national median average is $58. Contra Costa County spends $73. Laidlaw, a private bus company, spends only $44.50 an hour.

The VTA's high costs are not explained by the cost of living, or the fact that the VTA covers a large area. San Mateo County has both problems, and it manages with $108 per hour to run a bus.

The real problem is that the VTA wastes money.

Ten years ago, it took the VTA 2.34 employee-hours to run a bus for one hour. Now it takes 3.15 employee-hours to keep that same bus running. Why does the VTA need more people now to do the same job? The national median is 1.91. Why does the VTA need 65 percent more people to run a bus than other agencies?

As another example, New York City and Santa Barbara use 486 administrative hours per vehicle annually, just under the national median of 489. VTA uses 1,965 administrative hours per bus. The national median is about one administrative employee per four buses. VTA has roughly one administrative employee for each bus. There is no reason why the VTA number should be this high.


Think this is bad? At least people ride VTA buses. VTA also operates a multi-billion dollar light rail system which has practically zero ridership. In other words, by examining bus operating costs one is cherry-picking the most efficient of VTA's operations!

Perry's examination of VTA's gold-plated incompetence is worth keeping in mind when you read the pro-mass-transit puff pieces which appear more frequently in the media. For instance, yesterday's San Jose Mercury News gushed about how high-speed trains were going to save us from our sinful polluting and traffic-causing ways:

Report: Trains would cost less, be better for Calif. environment


Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - A high-speed rail system linking California's major cities would be less than half as expensive and more environmentally friendly than building out highways and airports to meet the state's travel demands, a draft environmental impact report says.

The 2,000-page document, scheduled to be released Tuesday at news conferences in San Francisco and Los Angeles, looks at three options to deal with the state's transportation needs as intercity travel increases as much as 63 percent over the next 20 years.

Under the first scenario, the state would build only those highway and airport projects currently in the planning stages. Under the second, the state would build those projects and add an additional 2,970 miles of new highway lanes, nearly 60 new airport gates and five runways at a cost of nearly $82 billion in today's dollars.

The third option calls for a 700-mile high-speed rail system to supplement the currently planned highway and airport projects with trains running at top speeds of more than 200 mph. The trains would cost $33 billion to $37 billion in today's dollars and carry as many as 68 million passengers a year by 2020, according to the report.

"Our conclusion is, and data shows, that basically the high-speed train is the best of the three options," Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said Monday.

The first option would result in "almost a chaotic situation ... where we have extreme cases of gridlock," he said.

The second alternative "would cost more than twice as much as high-speed trains, if we could do it, and would have substantially more impact on wetlands, farmlands, air quality and other environmental impacts that we are concerned about."

How badly disconnected is Executive Director Morshed from reality? He says that building high-speed trains, which do not exist in California, compares favorably to highway and airport expansion because he's not sure that it's possible to build new lanes and gates. And how anyone could make the bald-faced assertion that high-speed trains would carry 68 million passengers per year is beyond me.

Consider: People who drive from, say, San Francisco to LA had the choice of flying, and rejected it. Many of them need their cars at the destination, so neither airplanes nor trains are suitable for them.

So a high-speed train system would need to compete with air travel. Trains are slower than planes, so they can be competitive only if they are much cheaper. But the infrastructure for operating air travel exists, while the trains and their associated infrastructure has yet to be built. Conclusion: A high-speed train system would be an expensive void, just like San Jose's light rail.

(Anyone who is thinking, as I did at first when composing this post, that trains can be competitive with airplanes because they are less of a hassle: Please smack yourself upside the head until your thinking improves. If you say "Sure a train would take an extra hour to get to LA, but it might be worth it because I wouldn't have to deal with security and long lines," you are saying that the advantage possessed by rail is that no one uses it. If trains were to draw millions of customers, they would have the same attendant problems of security and crowds that currently afflict air travel.)



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