Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Transit Distances & Cost

Browsing planning documents, I came across one by the city of Winston-Salem, talking about the potential for a BRT or light rail between itself, and the nearby city of Greensboro. Rough distance is about 25 miles, which is far too far for a light rail line. There are certain numbers, that when I hear them, I know that the people proposing haven't done their research (or hired someone who has). Just some of my personal rules of thumb, for 'starter lines'.

Streetcar: 1-4 mile.
Light rail: 8-20 miles.

I forget where, but I once saw a graphic of all operational streetcar lines, super-imposed on one another. They were tiny, most of them between a mile and two miles. A rare few got as high as three. The Fed's funded Albequerque, which is four miles long, but they already had a 1 mile 'vintage' trolley they had been operating for the better part of a decade.

Charlotte has a plan for a 10 mile long streetcar LINE. That's not a line*--that's a system. It's a ridiculous distance to try to build at once. Streetcar networks get built one line at a time, in small segments, not enormous mega-projects. Certainly, I understand the political calculus of it. Charlotte is not going to tell the other members of its funding coalition the they aren't going to get their 'part' of the streetcar line for twenty years, during which time it may be 'delayed indefinitely' (and never built). But that's just bad transit planning.

The numbers break the bank. A 'cheap' light rail costs $25m/mile, with the average being about $35m/mile. At the $35m price, a 20 mile line runs about $700m. Assuming the Feds pick up half the price tag, the local city/MPO/transit agency still has to come up with $350m worth of NEW money.

That's not counting operations. Operations cost data is (irritatingly) mostly available in formats like "cost per passenger" or "cost per passenger mile". Cost per hour operating costs for vehicles is rare, which is irritating, because that is what is needed to determine actual operating costs. Calgary gives $163/hour for its light rail, and is considered cheap at that price.

Let us start with our hypothetical 20 mile train. Let us be (extremely) generous and assume (average) 20 mph operating speeds (actual average is 16.4), for stations a mile apart. At 20 mph, a train can go between stations in about 3 minutes. So in 15 minutes, that's five stations. Assuming 20 stations, that's 4 trains per hour, per direction (8 trains total). So that route requires 8 hours of train time every hour, at a cost of $163/hour, for 14 hours a day.  That's about $18,000 a day. Assume the train runs 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Annual operations cost is per mile is $5.5m.

$350m to buy the train and $5.5m to pay for the cost to run it. Assume that the initial cost doesn't have to be collected all at once, that it can be financed. UTA was paying about 15%, and has a pretty stellar credit rating. Borrowing $350m at 15% over 30 years means an annual payment of about $50,000, so such a train would cost $6m annually.

Which is a very large number, and not money most places just have lying around. The State of Utah had about $1.5b in taxable sales last quarter. Obtaining an extra $6m would mean raising the tax rate by .42%, or about .5%. So the sales tax rate would go from 7.0% to 7.5% to fund such a light rail system. That's politically difficult to achieve. For a County with an economy half the size of Utah's, (.75b in taxable revenue), double the tax raise would be necessary. Asking for a 1% rise in sales tax at the ballot box tends to fail. Half percent increases are more politically feasible. UTA got the first TRAX line built on .25%, and the expansion done on another .25%.
*A 'line' is a functionally independent unit of a transit network, that could operate on its own, cut off from the rest of the network. Most places are starting their rail networks with a single line, and building their networks from their. Each subsequent line is easier because of the network effect. By connecting by already accessible destinations