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Metro is dead. Long live BRT! (Or so some say)

Originally published in the Washington Post

Economic & Fiscal Policy, Transportation, Gas Tax/Infrastructure

by Frederick Kunkle | The Washington Post

NEWS

MARCH 18, 2016 Bookmark and Share

Metro’s total shutdown Wednesday forced many people onto buses for the day.

But maybe that’s just the way things should be. All the time.

So say some transportation analysts anyway. They argue that Metro’s climactic failure is another sign that the bus–the lowly bus, so often seen as the clumsy and homely understudy to light or heavy rail–should once again play a starring role in mass transit.

An analyst from the right-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute went so far as to suggest that Metro is dead, and it’s time to pull the plug in favor of bus rapid transit (BRT). But so did an analyst over at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, who suggested that rail – and maybe even buses too – should be scrapped for private sector solutions coming into widespread use, including ride-sharing (like Uber) and driverless vehicles.

“Why isn’t now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in this system?” asks Thomas A. Firey, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. “Any reasonable metric shows it’s not a good form of transit compared to other ones. ”

If Firey had his way, he said he would close Metro and fill its tunnels with dirt.

Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also thinks public subways and bus systems have been so mismanaged for so long, it’s probably time to find alternatives.

“Both urban bus and urban rail are socially undesirable in most cities–that is, their operating and capital subsidies exceed benefits to users,” Winston said.

Both argue that Metro represents the transit option of yesteryear, and that the vast capital investments and operating subsidies that governments must plow into fixed rail systems no longer make sense compared with the flexibility and relatively low cost of BRT or ride-sharing and other innovations. This is particularly true at a time when buses and cars are cleaner and more fuel-efficient than ever. How much carbon, rail skeptics ask, went into the atmosphere to build the underperforming Silver Line?

In this view, the love affair for Metro is a holdover from the days when monumental projects were equated with the public good, and the preference for rail over buses was driven at least partly by middle-class tastes and anxieties. A federally-funded study by the National BRT Institute of  mass transit options in Los Angeles suggests buses have an image problem that’s affected more by intangibles, such as perceived comfort,  than tangibles, such as their reliability moving people around. Those intangibles also depend at least in part on the “urban context” a bus network serves – that is, the communities it transits — and this can be affected by the perception that the buses travel through low-income neighborhoods, the study says. You find Ralph Cramden behind the wheel of a bus; you find Tom Cruise on a train.

In a paper published in the 2013 edition of the Journal of Economic Literature, Winston argued that the United States has almost always been in flux between public and private approaches to maintaining its transportation infrastructure. But the time has come to either overhaul government’s stewardship of public transit or allow the private sector more of a share, because the current system is riddled with inefficiency and inequality.

Despite the notion that Metro is egalitarian, for example, studies show the federal government is subsidizing rail systems for riders who already have above-average incomes, compared to those who use the bus. The average income of a bus rider is $42,550 (in 2008 dollars); for rail, it’s $85,100. The 2016 median salary for Washington is $69,235, according to the Census Bureau.

Federal employees alone receive, free of charge, up to $255 a month to ride Metro. That’s the maximum a pretax subsidy anyone can receive; for people  outside the federal government, it’s deducted from his or her pretax wages.  For a federal employee, that’s the equivalent of a $3,060 annual bonus for them and $15 million a year for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. (The average pay for a federal employee is about $79,000, according to the Office of Personnel Management.)

Low-income commuters, or those who make less than $15,000, use rail for only 9.6 percent of their work trips – probably because transit reaches less than one third of metro-area jobs, Winston found.

“Fortunately, innovations in the private sector, including Uber in the short run and autonomous vehicles in the medium run, can improve urban transportation, and will likely eliminate public transit’s drain on the public purse and its patience,” Winston said.

Firey spelled out his reasoning along these lines in a policy paper that he admits sounds “radical.”

In his view, Metro is a dinosaur, built when 1960s urban planners and engineers still harked back to the hundred-year-old success of the London and New York subway systems and believed that electricity – thanks to things like nuclear power, among other things – would be the cheapest source of energy in the future.

People are still habituated to the idea that trains can carry more people and at greater cost efficiency than buses when, he argues, the opposite is true.

This is partially because the real cost of rail is hidden from Metro users, whose fares cover less than half of the system’s operating and maintenance expenses and almost nothing of its capital costs, he said. Plus, now that Metro’s critical infrastructure is sputtering toward the end of its 40-year functional lifespan—as has become more and more obvious to the public –the cost of rebuilding the system will be daunting.

“WMATA officials can try to nurse it along, but that will be costly and riders will face many more disruptions like today,” Firey wrote Wednesday.  “Ultimately, costly and environmentally damaging reconstruction will be needed.”

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, thinks they’re both wrong.

Metro is the primary reason for the revitalization of the District and its inner suburbs, from Silver Spring to Bethesda in Maryland all the way over to to Arlington and now Tysons Corner in Virginia, Schwartz said. If anything, Metro’s troubles stem from a lack of concerted government attention and funding, Schwartz said. He agreed that the emergency shutdown this week demonstrates why the city should expand its reliance on dedicated bus lanes, but as a supplement to Metro, not a substitute.

“As our region grows, we need an efficient surface transportation network with dedicated right-of-ways to the maximum extent possible,” Schwartz said in an email. “It’s important for reaching areas Metrorail doesn’t go and is also an important [complement] to Metrorail.”

A network of dedicated bus lanes might even allow WMATA to shut down an entire Metro system for repairs. But Schwartz also said buses could never take Metro’s place, and the emergency shutdown Wednesday has now given people a taste of what it would be like if there were no subway system.

In other words, Metro isn’t dead. It just looked like it on Wednesday.

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End Metrorail