Public Interest Transit Forum -

Local Environmental Leader Offers Critique of RTA Transit Plan - Plans to Vote No

Presented at a Public Hearing before the King County Council, October 11, 1996

Emory Bundy is a graduate of the UW and UCLA and a former professor of political science at Oberlin College and University of East Africa. He has served as head of the staff of a member of Congress and as the Director of Public Affairs at King Broadcasting Company during 1969-83. Currently, he is a member of the staff of a major foundation. He is also an avid bicyclist.

To begin with a relevant story, the RTA holds up Los Angeles' rail projects as a good example. It is true, LA is entering its second decade of rail development, strikingly similar to the ambitions of the RTA's predecessor, the JRPC [1]. LA's Blue Line carries one of the highest riderships of any of the nation's light rail systems -- over 15 million passengers per year, an average weekday ridership of 37,000. But if one looks at LA's total transit picture, the situation is alarming. In 1985, before rail service, LA's transit system carried 497 million passengers[2]. In 1995, after a decade of rail-building, transit patronage fell to 362 million passengers -- a drop of 27%. With increasing population, the drop in transit marketshare was 38%.

The burden of rail is stressing the financial capacity of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. To pursue its rail dreams, the MTA scrimped on its buses. But the buses carry an enormously greater number of passengers -- 95%. Impaired bus service lost riders. The loss of bus patrons has far outstripped the modest number of new, privileged, lavishly subsidized train riders.

The numbers are not mere abstractions. Low-income, transit-dependent citizens have been badly hurt. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a class action suit on their behalf, and that of bus drivers. The MTA belittled the suit -- then waved a white flag. The mediator recently told the MTA that its actions were indefensible and advised it to settle the case. The MTA has been forced to concede that buses, not trains, are its top priority. It must restore 152 buses, lower and stabilize bus fares, and take aggressive measures to reduce the severe crowding on LA's inner-city buses. The final agreement awaits court approval. The cost of better bus service will constrain the MTA's multi-billion dollar spending spree on train projects.

When Chairman Dick Ford invited me to serve on the Regional Transit Authority's Public Outreach Committee, I warned him that I was skeptical of the feasibility of urban passenger rail systems, given the tremendous dispersal of people, and the modest population densities that characterize American cities, and the high capital costs. He extended the invitation anyway, so I served. The experience has informed and magnified my concerns.

I support the portions of the RTA's proposal that call for completion of the HOV system, prudent investments in access ramps to better serve transit, additional express bus service, and systematic improvements in the cooperative operation of our urban transit systems. Those investments represent but 23% of the RTA's total cost -- and promise to deliver 63% of the new riders. Those investments are markedly superior to the more generously funded rail components.


Consider the cost of the RTA's proposal[3]: IF local tax revenues arrive just as predicted, federal funds materialize exactly as hoped, the projects are built on schedule and within budget, ridership meets projected targets, interest rates are a moderate 8%, operating and maintenance costs don't increase as the equipment ages, the rail line to Northgate is not built, and there is a singular focus on paying off the $1 billion bond as quickly as possible, -- if ALL those eventualities come to pass, THEN the RTA's proposal will be paid off in the year 2016. Then we can contemplate a partial rollback of the tax burden. I will be 80 years old. The total cost to that point will be $5.3 billion. Rail's portion -- 77% -- will be over $4 billion. That's the euphorically hopeful version. Reality, I fear, will be less forgiving.


As for benefits, the RTA now claims it will serve 100,000 new riders by 2010. Buses will bring in the lion's share of the new passengers. Trains will absorb the lion's share of the money. It is hoped the trains (light rail plus commuter rail) will attract 37,000 new riders. But the "new riders" are one-way riders. The number of round-trip riders will be half that: 18,500.

The RTA's plan amounts to a surrender to worsening congestion. Its consequences will try the people's patience, pollute the air, and choke economic activity. Prodigious expenditures will be devoted to attracting 18,500 new train riders -- six-tenths of one percent of the region's population -- while the population growth will exceed 600,000 -- more than 30 times greater. Meanwhile, a plethora of more effective measures will be starved.


I will briefly mention six alternate measures, beginning with...

* More buses: The RTA's own figures confirm that buses offer a far better buy than trains. They also are more flexible -- especially with completed HOV lanes.

* Vanpooling is a tremendously cost-effective, energy-efficient mode of commuting. Your staff, at King County, recently costed-out what it will take to expand that service to the next increment of 5,000 workers: $11 million. That's twice the new riders the commuter rail will carry -- at 1.6% the capital cost! Vanpoolers pay 100% of their operating and maintenance costs. The expanded vanpooling could get 5,000 cars off the road by next year -- not 2010.

* The U-Pass program at the University of Washington, in 5 years, has reduced single-occupancy auto driving from 33% to 24% of the UW's 52,000 students, faculty, and staff. That's 4,680 cars off the road already[4] -- considerably more than what the RTA hopes its commuter train line will do by 2010. There are three-times more students, faculty, and staff at the rest of the metropolitan region's colleges and universities. If THEY instituted U-Pass programs, as successful as UW's, more cars would be removed from the highways than the RTA's light rail and commuter rail combined!

* Carpooling is a terrific way to use the existing transportation infrastructure more efficiently. IF we got one more rush-hour passenger per ten cars -- a mere 1.2 riders per car, rather than 1.1 -- far more cars would be taken off the road than everything the RTA proposes to do! But strategic investments will be required.

* Washington's Commute Trip Reduction Act asks large employers to remove 35% of their employees' cars from rush-hour traffic by 1999. Boeing's employees alone will remove more cars than the RTA's light rail and commuter rail combined -- and a lot faster. A well-crafted, modest tax incentive to support employers -- small as well as large -- will accomplish far more than the RTA's trains, far faster and far cheaper.

* Bicyclists know well how to expand bicycle commuting: safe corridors for cycling, places to shower and change, secure accommodations. More bicycle commuters could be recruited than the RTA's new commuter rail patrons, at a faction of the rail's operating subsidy -- and save the $670 million capital cost.

The experiences of other American cities with new rail systems is not encouraging. The only bright spots are the fortuitous occasions when a community (like Chicago) gets access, at moderate cost, to pre-existing rail lines, serving fairly densely-populated areas[5]. The fatal problems of the RTA's commuter rail are its prodigious capital cost and inadequate population densities.


In conclusion, this region faces a daunting set of transportation challenges. The most serious threat to our ability to respond effectively to those challenges is the RTA's proposal itself . It will siphon off $200 million per year of local taxes, and spend 77% of it on expensive, marginally useful rail projects. This folly will starve cheaper, faster, environmentally superior, and more effective transportation opportunities available to this region. The choice is billions so the RTA's trains can transport 18,500 new riders, after 14 years -- while population increases at more than 30 times that amount -- or invest more modest sums in better bus service, HOV lanes, vanpooling, carpooling, U-Pass programs, tax incentives for employers, cash incentives for employees, and bicycle corridors.

Unless we vote No we are going to suffer, grievously. Unfortunately, the missed opportunities will extend far beyond transportation. If passed, the RTA's heavy tax burden, and the loss of trust in government, will jeopardize prospects for school levies, parks & recreation bonds, open space bonds, low income housing, and every other appeal we may make to citizens to tax themselves for worthy public purposes.

You have the opportunity, with the resolution before you, to perform a notable service to the people of this region. You would do well to embrace it.


[1] The RTA still adheres to the Joint Regional Policy Council's dreams -- symbolized by its description of its $1.8 billion light rail proposal as a "starter-rail" project.

[2] I cite the official 1985 numbers of the Southern California Rapid Transit Authority (predecessor to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority), and the MTA's 1995 figures. Transit ridership figures are reported on Form 406, submitted annually to the US Department of Transportation.

[3] In spite of skepticism about the plausibility of both the RTA's cost and ridership claims, they have been accepted in full for the purposes of this presentation.

[4] This number is a bit inflated for this reason: Many students do not go to campus every day of the week. Therefore, the average daily number of cars removed from the highways is less than 4,680 -- but it far surpasses the 2,500 new passengers the commuter rail line hopes to attract by 2010.

[5] For example, Chicago's METRA recently acquired the use of the Wisconsin Central Freight Rail line, 51 miles of new service. The capital cost to put the line in operation was $130 million -- less than one-fifth that projected for the RTA's commuter rail project. And METRA believes it paid too much, because it made a commitment to the line before negotiating a deal, so found itself in a weak negotiating position.

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Last modified: February 07, 2011