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Sunday, October 24, 2010

University of Arizona

I was recently in Arizona, visiting the University of Arizona. It's an urban college campus, surrounded by the most shocking parking garages I've ever seen. Numerous six story parking garages. Divide the number of stalls by the total cost, and the average parking stall in a six story parking garage costs about $22,000. If each deck has 100 stalls, each garage costs about $22m dollars. And there were SIX parking garages. I remain aghast.

And this is just the 'cost of doing business', by providing an 'essential service' to students. I've got a better idea---BUILD A BRT. A nice one, a 'Rubber Tyred Light Rail' sort of BRT. Dedicated lanes, signal priority, electric buses with an overhead caternary (to eliminate that diesel-engine rumble), the works.

But therein resides one of the fundamental problems of financing transit systems. The parking garages were not built all at once-- U of A has doubtless been built one every five or ten years for several decades. You can't really build transit that way--transit relies on a network effect. The 'yield curve' for benefits is different. For parking garages, it's linear. For transit, it's exponential.  If you built $22 million of transit every 5 years, you would get:

  • 1/2 mile of light rail
  • 1 mile of streetcar
  • 2 miles of high quality BRT

But those are variable costs, ignoring the 'startup' costs of starting a new transit service--maintenance sheds, 'tail track' to the sheds for rail vehicles, signal control.... Rail is a transit sector with high barriers to entry. Lower marginal costs, but very high fixed costs.

Cost of land seems to be the straw that breaks the camels back. When a University looks at the cost of acquiring 5 contiguous acres for a new parking garage, which has to be within walking distance of campus, other alternatives are on the table. And more transit typically looks good, simply because a new transit system makes use of existing public right of way.