The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Informed but opinionated commentary and analysis on urban transportation topics from the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Our Mission: Monkeywrench the Anti-Transit Forces

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
Saturday, January 18, 2003

Seattle- You are Being Lectured by the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

"It is the unfortunate destiny of the ridiculous to be subject to ridicule."
James Howard Kunstler

"Truth passes through three phases: 1) It is ridiculed. 2) It is violently opposed. 3) It is accepted as self-evident." Albert Schopenhouer. In the United States, rail is currently passing through Phase Two.

From the Cabalmaster:

(Note: this is a bowdlerized, edited version of a reply the Cabal recently sent to a corresponent in the Puget Sound area. Names omitted to protect the guilty, except the REALLY guility!)

Cabalmaster is sorry he didn’t get back to answering your insightful emails sooner. You know, the Real World interfered with posting; Christmas, New Years Day, Boxing Day, all that.

Given the questionable credibility of Wendell Cox, the Cabal seriously doubts that serious bus advocates would want him as an ally. We in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal... have "Friends of the Cabal" (FOCs) in the Puget Sound area, wethink Cox’s pontificating in favor of busways and “bus rapid transit” as an alternative to successful light rail and other rail options is not helpful to serious bus advocates. For example, in Dallas they have recently opened DART extensions costing less than $20 million per mile, and reportedly are carrying significantly more passengers than projected, making the DART extensions quite cost effective relative to the patronage they are serving. His shows of “support” of bus options are really just throwaway rhetoric to further his main agenda of know-nothing rail bashing.

Us Cabalists actually take one of Cox’s buddies, Randal O’Toole, more seriously than Cox or any number of other Cox Buddies. O’Toole at least generally gets his base numbers correct, for example, his latest “Vanishing Automobile Update” at on the subject of commuter rail in Madison, Wisconsin. But like Cox, he tends to ignore research results he doesn’t like, or perhaps he doesn’t even know about. In this case, Cabalmaster is referring to a recent paper posted to See the link on the homepage to “WP02-04 Rapid Bus and Rapid Rail: Peak Period Service Supply vs. Observed Passenger Utilization.”

We do admit that we check Cox’s website once or twice per week. But unlike many anti-transit extremists like Cox or O’Toole, or extreme, emotional advocates of things like monorails or PRT, or the more outspoken pro-bus extremists, we in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal voraciously “read the enemy.” Remember the movie Patton where George C. Scott is overlooking his first successful, bloody rout of Rommel, and exclaiming

“Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!!”

Similarly, we are uncompromising adherents of the aphorism “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” (wethinks this originated in military circles during Roman times).

Anyway, the (paper referred to above) has dug up reams of data providing irrefutable evidence of rail being able to attract 35–40 percent more patronage compared to buses, based on the relative capacity offered. The analysis measures this by comparing the number of peak hour passengers observed on a long list of rail and bus systems, to the length of the vehicles operated. This research found that bus systems generally carried about 2.5 to 3.0 passengers per meter of vehicle length, up to a maximum of 3.5 per meter in extreme cases. In contrast, various light, heavy, and commuter rail systems carried anywhere from 3.5 to 5.0 passengers per meter of vehicle length during peak hours. One of the more interesting cases was Portland MAX, which was carrying about 5.0 passengers per meter of LRT length on the West Line.

Applying these numbers to a 40-foot, 39-44 passenger bus (12.2m), typical maximum loads will be 30-37 passengers during peak periods. Applying the same factors to 60-foot (18.3m) articulated buses, one gets 45 to 55 passengers per vehicle. In contrast, 85-foot (25.9m) LRVs will have maximum loads of 91-130 per vehicle. In corridors where bus loadings would be on the high end of the range for buses, rail loads would certainly be on the high end of the rail range. Applying this information to the case of Madison, one would expect rail to serve 35-40 percent more passengers as proven by reams of ridership data from the U.S. and around the world, thus invalidating O’Toole’s main point in O'Toole's Madison screed.

Now, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) doesn’t allow cities contemplating rail to account for (the findings of the paper referred to above) in its “alternatives analysis” process. (This) is probably due to the fact that rail advocates would become far more outspoken and non-compromising in their advocacy than now, and that many more cities would jump on the rail bandwagon if they were aware of and understood the implications. Of course FTA “new starts” funding would have to be increased by an order of magnitude to the range of $10-$12 billion annually to meet demand (funding which we think will inevitably occur when the actual habits of rail riders tending to stuff themselves into railcars more tightly compared to bus riders becomes general knowledge among rail advocates…) Another independent proof of rail’s attractiveness is that people tend to be willing to walk further to rail stations than to bus stops, typically up to 0.6 mile.

Anyway, we in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal think the Seattle region has a hell of a lot of transit issues on its plate, and Boy-O-Boy, what a circus!! It seems to be a 5-6 way logroll between the monorail cultists, Sound Transit, the “Road Gang” who never met a tens of billions of dollars road construction program they didn’t like, the libertarian, Republican anti-transit, anti-tax types from the Bill Gates side of Lake Washington, the self-styled “sensible” bus advocates, as well as the LRT advocates that aren’t sycophants of Sound Transit. Add to this strange brew the Paul Allen and Seattle Mayor’s new advocacy of a Portland Streetcar-style line (these two individuals are sufficient to compromise a group themselves matching anyone else). We suppose there may also be generic transit advocates out there somewhere, who want better evening and weekend bus service in their neighborhoods... My gawd, what a mess!!

Now, the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal is essentially an outside organization in the Puget Sound area. But we are arrogant enough to comment on the transit situation over there (look back at our archives; we haven’t hesitated in the past!) The easy stuff first. It is as predictable as the sun rising that the Seattle Monorail cult will self-destruct, given the first significant cost overrun. Welcome to the world of large scale, expensive public works projects. Apparently the monorail authority staff has already recognized this, and is starting an EIS process that apparently will meet federal requirements—perhaps they think Sound Transit will self-destruct, or be voted down—so the remaining federal money could be switched to the monorail? Fat chance! We would agree with the Mayor of Seattle that the thing should be strangled in its crib…

As for a county-wide monorail, we in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal have this reaction:

“hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah….!”

When Tim Eyeman decides to turn his organization into a non-profit!

We are also supremely arrogant enough to ask why upgrading of the EXISTING streetcar line along the waterfront and extending IT to Ballard isn’t a viable alterative to the monorail. Certainly the piece from downtown to the Ship Canal along the BN tracks would mainly be grade-separated, giving a nice high speed entry to downtown from NW Seattle. Why couldn’t Portland Streetcar type equipment be used, with surface street branches into various neighborhoods? With such a strategy, certainly more than the 35,000 daily passengers projected for the monorail could be carried. Given the fact that Portland MAX East Line could be constructed for about $30 to $35 million per mile now (assuming nominal dollar costs double from the mid-1980’s), such a line would cost half or less than the monorail.

As you might guess by now, we give lots of stock (sic) to Paul Allen and the Mayor and their streetcar idea (and as mainly --- users, our hearts really go out to Windoze users, they really do--Windoze users have many, many more reasons to hate Bill "Billgatus of Borg" Gates than us ---heads!) Our criticism would be that $40 million is probably not enough to construct the thing, particularly if it’s a full double track line. The Portland Streetcar cost $65 million for 5 miles of one-way track. Also, wouldn’t extensions such as to Union Station make the project more viable and useful? Heck, why not another 2.5 miles to the University District, with transit priorities at intersections and exclusive lanes in areas where possible? Why not connect to the existing waterfront streetcar?

In terms of the $30 billion-plus that WDOT wants to spend on widening King County highways, may we politely ask “what mind-altering substances have you WDOT folks been smoking AND inhaling?” In our view, trash Alaska Way and turn it into a 6-8 lane surface, 35 mph arterial. After removal of the Embarcadero in San Francisco, traffic along the waterfront dropped by about 50 percent, well within the capability of a surface roadway. Certainly a parallel LRT line with perhaps a spur to the Green Lake area could divert a significant amount of traffic (but don’t let the “taxidrivers” get a hold of it; costs would double or triple overnight, as explained below).

In terms of Sound Transit and its embattled LRT project, the first thing that needs to happen is that ST needs to fire its “taxidrivers.” We are referring to XX, those expensive consultants who “keep the meter running” piling up massive cost overruns, not Fal----! It seems like every major rail project the taxidrivers touch becomes gold-plated with massive cost overruns, for example, the BART airport extension, the San Jose BART extension ($3.2 billion and counting!), the L.A. Red Line subway, Portland MAX West Line, etc. In Sacramento, the 7-mile South LRT line is coming in at nearly $40 million per mile, despite the fact that it is 100 percent on the ground alongside a UP rail line. In Salt Lake City, Denver, and Dallas, similar alignments along railroads generally have come in less than $20 million per mile. Go figure.

May we in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal impudently suggest that the Sound Transit LRT plan be scratched in its current form, and the current crop of consultants dispatched forthwith. NOT THAT LRT "per se" BE ABANDONED, JUST THE BASTARDIZED, GOLD-PLATED, OVERPRICED VERSION THAT CURRENTLY EXISTS. The Cabal is happy that someone in Seattle, specifically Paul Allen and the Mayor, have taken a page from the Portland Streetcar playbook (there is a lot that can be learned there, despite what Seattle chauvinists "think!").

A page also needs to be taken from Portland's MAX playbook. As previously mentioned, the MAX East Line could probably be duplicated for $400-$500 million in today’s dollars, $600 million including the new Airport branch. This is actually quite cost-effective for 50,000 daily passengers (another thing ignored by the likes of Randal O’Toole: the MAX East Line has now met its original patronage projections of 42,500 passengers per day. Total Airport and Gresham branch patronage is about 50,000 daily; patronage would surely be higher if more rolling stock were available). Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a relatively high speed, mainly grade-separated LRT line directly connecting downtown with Sea-Tac, rather than the roundabout, time-consuming route via Rainer Valley? If per mile costs were kept in the range of the MAX East Line (without being gold-plated by the taxidrivers), a 14-15 mile line mainly along the BN/UP tracks should not cost more than $600-$700 million!

Again, this would be very reasonable for a route that could carry 40,000-50,000 daily passengers, presuming that the route went 1-2 stations south of Sea-Tac (with big park & ride lots, of course). Another advantage of a high speed trunk LRT line south of downtown would be the ability to add future branches, such as West Seattle, and a connector to a future I-90 east route (for after the monorail self-destructs). There would be sufficient money left over to construct a mainly surface LRT line through Rainer Valley, with a lot more stops to much better serve that depressed, high transit usage area. This of course, assumes no more than $30-$40 million per mile for a surface median alignment along arterial streets.

Compared to the existing $2.5 billion LRT plan, there may also be enough money to build the NW Seattle extension to Ballard, with surface streetcar branches. As for the big bugaboo, why not streetcars a la Portland to areas like First Hill? If not that, effective transit priorities for the trolley coaches, like they provide for streetcars and buses in Zurich, Switzerland? An elevated LRT line along I-5 and Route 520 and a short (less than 1.0 mile) subway stub into the University District should be considered (now why would an elevated LRT line along those noisy corridors be objectionable, but a 100 percent elevated monorail isn’t? What are some people smoking?)

Let’s face it, at least SOME new subway will be needed, regardless of monorails or LRT. Looking at the map, the route should be designed to branch within the U District to an eventual branch across Lake Washington on a new Route 520 floating bridge. This would add a lot of cost, but transit riders from the Eastside would have direct access to UW and the surrounding subcenter. Similarly, any future extension to Northgate should diverge back to the I-5 corridor as quickly as possible, to keep costs down and speed service.

Switching gears one last time, we in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal wonder what Eastside road advocates are smoking when they don’t wince at $7 billion-plus to widen I-405 by two lanes in each direction? The Seattle Monorail cult doesn’t seem to flinch at $3 billion-plus for 37 miles of monorail on that route! So why not $30-35 million per mile for high speed LRT mainly along existing tracks between Renton, Bellevue, Redmond, Snohomish, and Everett (or a spur to Redmond, and new LRT to Everett parallel to 405), with a short surface diversion to serve downtown Bellevue, of course. Even with entirely new construction north of Route 520, this is likely to be half the cost of a monorail, and a quarter the cost of a strictly highway option. If passenger volumes of 4,000 per hour can be attracted in the peak, then the transit investment is equal in capacity to the new highway investment. At such volumes, LRT is also likely to be much cheaper to operate than buses at such peak volumes (see the Detroit paper at Of course, LRT is likely to be much cheaper to construct on a new 520 bridge compared to monorail, and to retrofit onto the I-90 bridges.

Last but not least, we in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal see a vital role for buses, not only for local and feeder services to rail trunk lines, but also as “bus rapid transit” in corridors that don’t have the traffic volumes to justify the capital costs of rail (this issue is discussed in that Detroit paper). Certainly Seattle should make improvements to the HOV lane system where it makes sense, such as freeway-to-freeway connectors, new ramps in key areas, etc. But don’t expect that to be enough, given the magnitude of the existing congestion problem, let alone future growth. Certainly transit priorities should be applied wherever feasible, whether for buses, trolley coaches, streetcars, whatever. BRT should be installed in corridors where improved transit service is needed, but not enough patronage potential to justify the high capital costs of rail (there are probably more corridors with BRT potential than with LRT potential, particularly where less than 1,500 passenger per hour or so during the peaks).

And If you still think buses are the “cheapest” to operate, think again. What about the capital costs of replacing those bizarre hybrid buses that run in the bus tunnel? We in the Cabal guess at least $700,000 or more each—could reach a million dollars each possibly, and they only last 12-15 years, compared to 30-40 years for an LRV. Take a look at Metro operating statistics. For 2001 the National Transit Database (FY 2001 Seattle Metro NTD Profile) reported 101 million bus passengers traveling 548 million passenger miles, at an operating cost of $346 million—e.g., 63 cents per passenger mile. In contrast, BART (FY 2001 BART NTD Profile) spent $328 million to carry 104 million passengers over 1,268 million passenger miles, an operating cost of $0.26 per passenger mile. In Portland (Fy 2001 Portland TriMet Profile), TriMet spent $40 million to carry 25 million passengers a total of 144 million passenger miles, a cost of $0.28 per passenger mile. In contrast, TriMet buses cost $154 million to carry 65 million passengers a total of 216 million passenger miles, or $0.71 per passenger mile. You may want to add capital expenditures to total bus and rail operating costs, but don’t forget to subtract the amounts spent on new capacity additions, whether bus or rail! Don't make a Wendell Cox type of "mistake!"

Out of Seattle’s 101 million annual bus riders, we are curious how many of these rides are made within the City of Seattle proper. Our wild guess is about 2/3, through the city has only about 1/3 of King County’s population, with relatively low costs per passenger but high costs per passenger mile (e.g., like the trolley buses with very high patronage but very short trips). We seriously doubt that the large fleet of suburban articulated buses that operate only during peak periods is cheap to operate—if costs are properly allocated, overhead, administration and other fixed costs per bus will be the same, even if a peak period bus operates 4-5 hours per day, versus a trolley coach or local bus running 14-15 hours per day. Direct labor costs will also be very high if bus drivers get paid for 8-10 hours but work only 4-5 hours actually “in service.”

Anyway, for now we in the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal are now "all Seattle’d out.” I suppose we could consider you… a “Friend of the Cabal” even though we may not completely agree on the old (we think stale and tired) bus vs. rail debate. In other words, we want to (conserve) our vitriol for the monorail cults and the likes of Wendell Cox…



Ringmaster of the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Comments: Post a Comment