Friday, July 27, 2007

You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby

I'm talking about local light rail here in Columbus. This Week reports that MORPC has dropped plans to pursue any of the three alternatives for rapid transit between downtown and Polaris, a story which Paul at Columbus RetroMetro elaborates upon. Oddly enough, MORPC doesn't seem to have any mention of this on their own website, but then again their website is in need of a little coordination and planning itself.

The article in TW states that none of the projects can hit the cost effectiveness criteria required by the Feds, so there's no point in going forward. Unfortunately for those of us reading the article, no attempt to explain any of the numbers is actually given. So I did some looking about...

The FTA has a grant process by which it helps fund new fixed-route transit projects. Projects under $250,000,000 are eligible for Small Start grants, larger projects (and the light-rail and streetcar alternatives are both projected to cost at least twice that) are funded through the New Starts mechanism. Al-Akhras, the MORPC spokesman, is communicating the FTA's message quite clearly: Only the most "cost-effective" projects need bother to apply. The Columbus Light Rail project is estimated at $82-$123, and projects above $23.99 won't even get a second look.

You might ask, as I did, $23 dollars worth of what? What assumptions about what numbers give us $123? How do we get to $82? You might go seek out the New Starts Guidance Document, as I did. You still wouldn't know, but you would have some help...

Cost Effectiveness appears to be calculated by first taking the annualized Capital cost of the project, adding the annual operating cost of the project, and subtracting the annual operating cost of transit components being replaced. This number is then divided by the annual number of trips taken on the new system multiplied by the average overall time savings per trip in hours. This isn't the benefit that I would choose, but it's the system we have.

So if we were to assume a marginal capital/operating cost of $125m/yr, and 12,500 passengers/day, each of whom is shaving an average of 20 minutes off of the trip they would normally take (either via the #2 bus or their own car), the Cost Effectiveness of the system is $82 (See spreadsheet below). I have no idea if these inputs are close to those used (except for the number of passengers), but they are consistent with the low-end estimate. Dropping daily ridership to 10,000 and upping the capital/operating increase to $150m/yr gives you $123. Once again, my choice of inputs may be way off, if you have expertise here, let me know.

If you're still with me, you're probably brainstorming ways to get down to that $23 dollar level. The first one is to reduce the cost, perhaps by shortening the corridor. Unfortunately, using the same ridership and time estimates as in our low-end estimate above, shaving $50m off of the annual budget still only gets us to a $49/hour-benefit. We could instead try to aggressively promote ridership. Leaving the budget as is and going from 12.5k to 20k daily riders only gets us from $82 to $51.

The number that really gets things moving is the time savings. A 35 minute time savings per trip gets us from $82 to $47. If the typical savings was 45 minutes, we're down to $36.

It would seem that making the train faster might help, but the big problem is that Columbus actually has one of the shortest commuting times in the country (60/69 among cities with population > 250k), so it's hard to shave time off of that. It takes a lot longer by bus, but not so many people use our bus system (in part because it takes way too long).

So the quickest way to become eligible for federal help in creating a modern transit system for Columbus appears to be to slow down north-south traffic on US-23 and I-71, with a smattering of extra congestion downtown at rush hour.... Anyone up for that?

1 comment:

Paul said...

I think that with rare exception, cities don't have that much foresight regarding their transportation systems. Things have to become pretty much intolerable before anything is done. So we're probably doomed to years of increasingly annoying commute times before anything strategic is done.

I also think that while commute times may be generally short in Greater Columbus, there are definitely pain points. I live in a township west of I-270 and north of I-70. My business is in an office park just inside I-270, only six miles away. During rush hour, my commute time is at least a half hour, because there are nowhere near enough roads to service the thousands of dwelling units which have been built out here. Folks in Pickerington will tell the same story. Meanwhile 161 into New Albany is being upgraded for the second time in a decade.

One of the elements of the Big Darby Accord plan is to run commuter trains down the existing rail line from a new town center that would be developed north of US40 near the county line. I'd like to see this happen. There would little if any construction costs for the rail line, dropping the capital requirements to passenger stations and rolling stock.

This is a chicken and egg thing. Call it 'build it and they will come' if you wish. In the northeast corridor of the US, and for all of Europe, development takes place around the existing transportation network, with incremental expansion to keep pace with urban growth.

Unless we want to keep building and upgrading major arteries in central Ohio, we need to build a transportation network that folks will trust to stay in business long enough to make housing decisions based upon access to that system. It will almost certainly burn cash for a while. Eventually it will pay off. Especially if gas prices go to $5/gal and keep climbing.

We just don't have politicians with the guts and skill to make it happen. Regardless of political party, they are all the pawns of developers. We won't get a better transportation system until developers think it's good for them.