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Posts about Transportation Financing


Metro has too many employees and not enough riders, say its consultants

Metro has a budget deficit that's widening, and while the agency is employing more and more people, ridership is down. The consultants who started reviewing WMATA earlier this year recently presented their findings to Metro's finance committee, and suggested a couple of possible ways to start closing the gaps.

WMATA's operating deficit has grown, with costs outpacing revenue. Image from McKinsey/WMATA.

Metro's General Manager Paul Wiedefeld brought on McKinsey & Co early on in his tenure to review the agency's operations, and to suggest ways it could work better and save money. Thursday's presentation was a follow-up to an earlier McKinsey report, and allowed Metro's board of directors to discuss the company's findings and start mulling over what to do next.

In short, McKinsey restated that Metrorail security is ok relative to other US agencies but Metrobus security lags behind, that the agency spends more than most on rail car maintenance yet still has issues getting cars into service, and the agency is doing less with more employees.

The combination of all of these issues means ridership has gone down and is no higher now than it was in 2005, but costs have continued to increase. Given the hand it's been dealt, WMATA still has some time left to take the steps necessary to turn things around, but the window of opportunity won't be open forever.

Metro's financial problems aren't new by any stretch of the imagination. Metro's CFO presented a similar warning last year that expenses were continuing to increase while revenue stagnates. Also, federal funding for WMATA has been restricted since 2014, when the FTA performed a financial audit and found gaps in the agency's monetary controls.

The federal funding restrictions have meant it takes longer for Metro to receive funding even if it expects to ultimately get it, and that the agency has had to crack down in its finance office to make sure money is being used properly.

The FTA's report and late financial audits have made it harder for Metro to justify that it needs continuing and increased funding.

Employee headcount and expenses. Image from McKinsey/WMATA.

Two main factors were seen as contributing to the agency's financial woes: a rising number of full-time employees and decreasing ridership. The agency's full-time employee headcount has increased from 8,596 in fiscal year 2011 to 10,269 in FY 2015, which ended June 30th of 2015.

The report notes that 73% of these employees are in two main groups within WMATA: Metrobus, and Transit Infrastructure and Engineering Services (TIES), which is in charge of most if not all Metrorail maintenance, construction, and upkeep.

TIES and Rail Transportation (RTRA) have been growing at a rate of 7% since 2011, according to the report. Some of the increase is due to almost 500 positions filled for the opening of Phase I of the Silver Line, however that still means around 800 other employees were added as well. Wiedefeld has un-done some of this growth by recently announcing that he'll eliminate 500 positions, but some of those are vacant anyway.

Normalized for population, Metrorail carried 86% the number of riders in 2015 as it did in 2015. Image from McKinsey/WMATA.

Ridership is down

Yearly employment growth might be healthy if ridership on the system was keeping up, but that is not the case here. McKinsey's report notes that adjusted for population growth in the region, the system in 2015 carried only 86% than what it carried in 2005.

While all other systems that McKinsey looked at showed ridership growth between 2005 and 2015, Metro's growth increased up to around the financial crisis in 2008-2009 and has been decreasing ever since. Off-peak rides account for 48% of the ridership decline since 2011, continues the report.

While there may be no one thing that caused people to stop riding, there are certainly several circumstances that greatly contributed to it, including: drops in reliability; seemingly-constant weekend, weeknight, and mid-day trackwork reducing train frequency and increasing waits; fare increases; and high-profile safety/security events relating to the system.

McKinsey recommended a number of ideas for cutting costs, including moving the Metro headquarters, and selling off or contracting out the agency's parking garages.

Those ideas are great, but the real keys are increasing system reliability, decreasing rail car breakdowns and delays, and spurring growth around Metro stations to encourage continuing ridership. Paul Wiedefeld seems to understand what needs to be done to turn the tide, and has implemented the SafeTrack program and now also has a focus on fixing railcar maintenance.

Improvement won't be instant—few positive changes are—but hopefully it will show its head in the weeks, months, and years to come.


National links: The robots can't see the road!

When robots are driving cars, faded line markings become bigger problems than usual. Also, Phoenix gets a bad rap among urbanists but maybe we should consider it differently, and airports can be pretty miserable places to be in. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Ali Eminov on Flickr.

Robocars are befuddled: As roads age, their lane markings fade and signs become harder to read. Most humans can adjust alright, but nationwide, roads in disrepair are confusing self-driving cars. (Reuters)

Phoenix is just misunderstood: Phoenix gets a bad rap among urbanists because it's not very dense and virtually everyone there drives. But is that what it deserves? It's true that Phoenix, and similar places like Houston and Las Vegas, have sprawling designs. But maybe we should evaluate them based on how effective today's decision makers are while working within those parameters. (Urban Edge)

Airport agony Do designs for airports accommodate passengers? The New York Times' Chris Holbrook argues that changes in building priorities, from security concerns to more specialists who need to sign off on small details, has made airports feel more like prisons than places of comfort and service. (New York Times)

The US is lagging behind: When compared to airports in Seoul or trains in Switzerland, America's infrastructure falls short. Possible explanations include that we're dependent on cars, that the private sector abandoned mass transit, that we won't pay for maintenence, and that more people are focused on their own success but not that of society at large. (The Conversation US)

Housing hyperbole: Joel Kotkin is one of urban thinking's most outspoken contrarians, and a review from the California Planning and Development Report says his recent book is so off-base that it's questionable whether he has ever actually met a planner. Just because a city is getting denser doesn't mean it will get as dense as humanly possible, and just because a lot young and wealthy people live in cities doesn't mean there's a "war against suburbia." (CPDR)

Quote of the Day

"As we've grown in recent decades in our knowledge of urban economies, street-level planning, city design, the value of diversity, government finance and management, we've lost an essential leadership skill—the craft of city politics." Otis White, a renowned writer on government and cities, on why planners should think like politicians.


Larry Hogan couldn't have canceled the Red Line so easily if a new bill had been law

In Maryland, the governor has a lot of unilateral authority to kill or approve transportation projects, and Larry Hogan hasn't been slow to wield it. But Maryland legislators are working to pass a law that'd make it harder to cancel projects that'd benefit the community at large.

Students supporting the Baltimore Red Line, a project that Maryland governor Larry Hogan cancelled. Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan campaigned on redirecting more money from transit to roads. And when he came in, he started doing just that, removing large amounts of state aid from the Purple Line and totally killing Baltimore's plan for a light rail system.

Last Tuesday, Maryland lawmakers unveiled a slew of bills aimed at bringing balance back to the transportation budget. One, called the Open Transportation Decision Investment Act (SB908/HB1013), could change the way Maryland funds transportation projects.

This particular law would establish a scoring system that considered transportation projects in the context of measures like environmental stewardship, community vitality, economic prosperity, and equitable access to transportation. If a Governor decided to fund a project that ranked low over one that ranked high, he or she would have to provide an official explanation.

It's been hard to stop Hogan from going after transit projects

In Larry Hogan's first year, state construction aid for the Purple Line went from $700 million to $168 million, and both Montgomery County and Prince George's County had to cough up more money to keep it alive. Highways went from making up 45% of the transportation budget to 57%.

Hogan is now using the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund to build highways and support sprawl, the exact opposite of what the fund was intended to do.

Regarding the Baltimore Red Line, Hogan called the project a "wasteful boondoggle." Killing it, however, was a major blow to Baltimore leaders and business interests. Research pointed toward the line having huge economic benefits, with 15,000 jobs coming from project construction alone.

Cancelling the Red Line is an even bigger blow to Baltimore when you consider sprawl is a major economic drain on the city's economy.

Baltimore's cancelled Red Line. Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

Where did the savings killing the Red Line go? You guessed it: roads.

Of $2 billion dollars in road projects($1.35 billion of it new), most went to sprawl-inducing development like $160 million dollars to widen Route 404 on the Eastern Shore and $90 million to realign a road in Garrett County.

This bill could keep officials like Hogan in check

While Hogan's spokesperson called SB908/HB1013 a "power grab," Virginia enacted a similar bill with bi-partisan support.

So is this really a partisan issue? No. What this bill does is prevent killing or approving projects arbitrarily. It makes it so that merit, not ideology, is what decides whether projects move forward.

Hopefully with more transparency, pro-sprawl governors like Larry Hogan will have to explain to taxpayers why they are spending millions of dollars on projects that just do not add up.

If you're a Maryland resident who supports the Open Transportation Investment Act, you can contact your legislator via 1,000 Friends of Maryland.


Hogan shifted transit money to roads. Here's what he'll build

When Maryland governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore's Red Line and cut state funding from the Purple Line, he shifted over a billion dollars from transit to road construction. Here are the road projects he plans to build with that money.

All images from the State of Maryland.

On the map, blue lines and dots illustrate major highway projects. Red lines are smaller road projects, and green dots are bridge projects.

There are three major highway projects in the Washington region, on I-270, the Beltway, and Route 1. Most of the money is going to projects in other parts of the state.

I-270 in Montgomery

Montgomery County will get one big project: $100 million for "innovative congestion reduction" on I-270, between the Beltway and I-370.

That won't be a widening. It will be operational tweaks to squeeze more efficiency out of the pavement that's already there. MDOT will introduce things like ramp meters, bus-on-shoulder, and signals that let motorists drive on the shoulder at peak times.

Officials haven't determined the exact location or mix of projects yet, but all three of those strategies have helped Virginia squeeze more capacity out of I-66.

Two in Prince George's

Prince George's will get two big projects: $185 million to expand the Beltway interchange at Greenbelt Metro station, and $30 million to rebuild US-1 through downtown College Park.

Greenbelt (left) and College Park

The Greenbelt project will add new highway ramps, so drivers coming from northbound I-495 will be able to get to the Metro station, and so drivers leaving Metro will be able to reach southbound I-495. Those movements aren't possible today.

The College Park project will make US-1 a four-lane highway with a raised median, and add better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations. This is the same project this blog has advocated for over the past year, although it's not clear from Hogan's announcement what the final design will look like.

Most of the money goes elsewhere

Those three projects will most directly affect Washington-area drivers. Here are the biggest new projects elsewhere in the state:

Here's the complete list of major road projects statewide. In addition to new projects, the list also includes $645 million in "preserved" funding for projects for which MDOT had already budgeted.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


There's plenty of room for safe bike lanes in College Park

Route 1 in College Park is about to undergo a major reconstruction. As long as Maryland's State Highway Administration doesn't widen the road's travel lanes, the project is a chance to make Route 1 safe for people on bikes.

Route 1 plans. All images from Maryland SHA.

Local residents, the University of Maryland, the City of College Park, and biking advocates all want protected bike lanes on Route 1. SHA engineering guidelines now include design specifications for protected bike lanes.

But SHA is looking into widening Route 1's existing travel lanes at the expense of safe, usable bike lanes.

Advocates from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association recently measured the existing roadway and lane widths on Route 1 between between the entrance to the University of Maryland and Greenbelt Road. Currently, that stretch is nearly 53 feet wide, with ten-foot travel lanes along the entire segment.

Ten-foot lane widths would mean ample room for safer, buffered and protected bike lanes. On the other hand, making travel lanes wider would lead to higher vehicle speeds that'd then make it more difficult to make downtown College Park walking and biking-friendly. Narrow, unprotected bike lanes are unsafe alongside high-speed, high-traffic roads.

Route 1 can be a road everyone can use

SHA's original proposal for Route 1 included 11-foot travel lanes plus five feet for bike facilities (a four-foot lane and a one-foot gutter pan). Five feet for bike lanes that run alongside Route 1's heavy car and bus traffic is not enough space—just look at how rarely people use the unprotected bike lanes on several other busy Prince George's County roads. The bike lanes would be stressful to use at best, and death traps at worst.

Original Route 1 proposal.

SHA is considering expanding the bike lanes to six feet in total width (a five-foot lane plus a gutter). That would be better, but the bike lanes would still not be protected or buffered, and SHA would still be expanding the current lane widths from 10' to 11' for all four travel lanes.

However, if there is room for two 11' travel lanes and a 6' bike lane, then there's also room for a properly buffered and/or protected bike lane. SHA's minimum recommended width for buffered bike lanes is seven feet: four feet of lane, two of buffer, and a one-foot gutter.

If at least one of the travel lanes stays at ten feet wide rather than going to 11, there would be room for a seven-foot protected bike lane.

If both travel lanes stay at ten feet wide, there would be room for an eight-foot wide bike lane with a three-foot buffer and a five-foot lane. This would make College Park and the university more accessible and safer to travel around by bike. That's what the community wants and deserves.

There have been several pedestrian deaths on Route 1 in recent years, and SHA has billed Route 1 reconstruction as a safety and accessibility improvement for people who walk and travel by bike.

Completely rebuilding Route 1 is a tremendous opportunity for Prince George's county to create a walkable, person-friendly corridor in College Park. Buffered or protected bike lanes should be part of that vision. As long as Route 1's travel lanes don't get any wider, there's plenty of room for that.


It wouldn't cost much to make this Prince George's road safer for everyone

Suitland Road, a major thoroughfare in Prince George's County, offers nothing for people who walk, ride bikes, or take the bus. There's enough room to make the road nicer and safer for everybody, and the cost would be tiny.

WABA Proposal for Suitland Road. Illustration by the author.

Suitland Road is a rural-style, two-lane road that passes through a nondescript commercial patch on the way from DC to the Suitland Federal Center. It has no sidewalks or bike lanes between Southern Avenue in DC and Silver Hill Road in MD, and and its wide traffic lanes (16 feet in some places) encourage speeding. However, it will soon be the hub for new development next to the federal center and near the Metro station.

Suitland Road in its current condition. Photo by the author.

Washington Area Bicyclist Association Prince George's action committee has made transforming Suitland Road into a bike friendly space a top priority for 2015. The committee published a proposal to repurpose Suitland Road's wide traffic lanes, center turn lanes, and shoulder space to a street with protected space for biking and walking on either side. There'd be no need for additional asphalt, or even sidewalk paving.

Suitland Road between Maryland and DC. Image from Google Maps.

All things considered, the suggested changes are cheap

Adding the protected bike lanes and walk space that are in WABA's proposal would cost between $80,000 and $165,000, with annual maintenance costs of less than $10,000. Of course, actual sidewalks, along with bus platforms and landscaping, would be nice. But the idea is to calm traffic and make Suitland Road safer for people on bikes and foot as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

WABA's proposal uses flexposts, a "soft" bike lane protector that's common in DC, rather than more expensive curbing or a raised roadbed for bike lanes. The cost estimates also cover bike symbols, lane and buffer striping, and changing existing pavement lines.

There are two main approaches to lane striping. The first, thermoplastic lines (hot tape), would cost about $165,000 to install. They'd carry an annual maintenance price tag of about $1,200.

The other option would be to use white paint for the lane markings. This would cost about $80,000 upfront, with $9,600 in annual maintenance.

On a per-mile basis, these cost estimates are considerably lower than most types of roadway improvements. The estimates, meant to provide ballpark figures rather than specifics, are from an engineer familiar with the proposal.

The Maryland State Highway Administration, which maintains Suitland Road, recently added road design guidelines that include buffered striping for bike lanes along with curbed protection features. WABA's proposal uses flexposts, a "soft" bike lane protector that's common in DC, instead of curbing or a raised roadbed for bike lanes.

The Suitland Civic Association, WABA, and local bike shops are planning a community walk to advocate for a better Suitland Road on April 4th.

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