Review of Sound Transit: How Independent?

From: Emory Bundy

Subject: RE: The Benefits of Sound Transit

Date: Friday, 13 October, 2000 16:20

Members of the Fourth Estate:    Yesterday evening I had a telephone message from David Quigg, of the News Tribune, asking what I thought about Sound Transit's announcement yesterday that it would have an independent review of Capitol Hill tunnel costs.  As the issue is extremely important, and the announcement--as far as it goes--encouraging, I would like to share my response more broadly.  It comes accompanied with a heartfelt appeal that professionals in the news business pay close attention.

I didn't receive your call until late last night, David.

It's a positive move--providing it's a serious initiative, and not merely a controlled PR ploy.  It's not a good sign that the critics weren't consulted, and no input about personnel or scope has been solicited.  There has been a deficient history regarding Sound Transit's objectivity and openness, which I will summarize briefly, below.

Sane Transit's position is affirmative with respect to the announcement, while seeking assurances that a) the study will genuinely be independent, which means independent experts and their own staff; b) the study include all costs of Link,, and not be limited only to issues of Capitol Hill tunnel costs; c) attention be paid to whether, whatever the costs are, they can be managed under existing subarea equity policies, and d) scrutiny be given to the relative costs of other high-capacity options.

Speaking personally, here are past items that prompt wariness:

1.  As an RTA committee member, I beseeched chairman Dick Ford and executive director Bob White that RTA commission one or more independent economic analyses of its prospective 1996 transit plan.  This call was made in advance of adoption of that plan, then repeated subsequently.  An independent study was not commissioned by RTA, though one would have thought RTA should have been interested in the economic merits of its proposal, and their objective validation.  [The letters are lengthy, but I will append them at the conclusion of this note, FYI.  I submit they demonstrate a serious and objective pursuit and concern on my part, which so far has not been reciprocated by Dick Ford or Bob White.  Whether RTA board members were informed, and complicitous in the resulting misrepresentations, I don't know.]

Since RTA failed to act, Don Padelford and I did commission such a study, by an outstanding team, ECONorthwest and Washington Research Council ("Benefit-Cost Analysis of RTA Plan," October 1996).  The study's analytical methodology was confirmed by a prestigious national panel of five economists and transportation planners.  RTA then surreptitiously commissioned its own economic consulting firm, Porter & Associates, to secretly do a parallel study, which, by using inflated benefits and understated costs, purported to confirm there was, on balance, positive merit to RTA's 1996 proposal.  It released its report two days before the ECONorthwest study was released.  Both these studies are available, and anyone who takes the trouble to check it out will confirm the above--but the media elected to relegate the exercise to irrelevance, on the grounds that there were competing studies, take your pick.

The difference, I submit, is that one study sought the truth, and the other sought to obscure it.  This was my personal introduction into Sound Transit's modus operandi.

2.  The Expert Review Panel had some good people on it, but RTA/Sound Transit controlled the agenda, the questions to be addressed, the framing of the questions, and the staff.  A number of ERP members, at the time, chaffed at the constraints, and I suspect more of them would in retrospect.

As for the ridership projections, as you know, Sound Transit will not permit anyone to have access to the models, so there is no opportunity for independent review.  The media seem, again, not to take any interest in gaining access to pertinent information, and are not bothered by it being withheld.  Meanwhile, an energetic citizen, Michael Weidler, has disaggregated, from the ground up, patronage on all bus lines that serve Rainier Valley, First/Capitol Hill, and U District, and simply can't fathom where the claimed quotient of riders will come from.  Per usual, this could be more sensibly addressed if Sound Transit made information generated at public expense available to the public.

3.  The Citizens Oversight Panel is hand-picked by Sound Transit, and staffed by Sound Transit.  Critics are systematically excluded.  Even so, even that body has become increasingly concerned about the trend of events.

4.  You received my earlier commentary (September 14) about the so-called independent review of Link by Diversified Capital, Inc.  The tip-off of its "independence" is the concession, on page one, that "Since data provided by Sound Transit were assumed to be accurate, any inherent limitations, errors or irregularities that occurred may not be detected."

DCI's study was rooted in a cost estimate of $1.9 billion--when Sound Transit itself has acknowledged additional, committed costs of $230 million (1995$), the largest one being purchase of the downtown tunnel.  In spite of the study's conveyance to Congress in September, 2000--when the severe cost overruns on the Capitol Hill tunnel bids were known--the DCI study presumes the tunnel bid would be within the $509 million budgeted, with about 10 percent more available for cost overruns.  Then DCI did what it described as an "unlikely scenario" that included a 10 percent cost overrun, and concluded that, with difficulty, Sound Transit could manage it.  This, to repeat, when Sound Transit KNEW that it already had accumulated $230 million more in obligations, plus a tunnel bid hundreds of millions of dollars beyond the figure budgeted.  In short, the cost estimate should have been in the range of $2.4  billion, not $1.9 billion--and even $2.4 billion will prove to be seriously understated, given known deficiencies in the budgeting of relocation costs in the Rainier Valley, the Beacon Hill tunnel, conversion of the downtown tunnel, relocation of utility infrastructure, and UW land acquisition.

5.  The claim that converting the downtown tunnel from buses to trains will enhance its transit capacity is false, and easily can be shown to be false.  The document that purports to show otherwise, "Downtown Seattle Transit Operations" (October 8, 1999), does so by failing to acknowledge that enhanced transit capacity via rail requires a) trains can be packed, but all bus passengers must be seated, b) two separate train lines, each coming every four minutes (too fast for non-separated light rail lines) have to neatly mesh into two-minute headways, which is simply too close for safety, and, even given a) and b), c) the entire scheme also depends upon the completion of a new rail bridge across Lake Washington, generally in the I-90 corridor, which fact is unmentioned, and for which there is no current approval, financial mechanism, or demonstrated political support, and which has been thrice defeated by voters.

6.  A diverse array of 88 local citizens made a call for an independent financial review, September 6.  They proposed to share costs, assure objectivity through joint participation of Sound Transit and concerned citizens, and offered a streamlined process, with a jointly-selected, outside expert chairman, which could be completed within three months.  That means, had it been accepted by Sound Transit, the review would have been completed in December.  It was immediately denounced by Sound Transit, with a press event the same day, and a claim that it would slow the process down.  Note that a genuinely independent review would have been completed well before Sound Transit's initiative will get seriously underway.

So, while I welcome the prospect of any review, there is an acute need for Sound Transit to establish its bona fides, given its record, and a similarly acute need for the media to be probing in its coverage.

The letters:

May 7, 1996

Dick Ford
Chairman, RTA Regional Outreach Committee
c/o Preston Gates & Ellis
701 Fifth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104-7078

Dear Dick:

With the receipt of the RTA's report, Economic benefits, system use and transportation impacts of the RTA ten-year system plan (April 24, 1996) I have received sufficient information to conclude that the proposed plan, if adopted, would be a disservice to the region.  I therefore oppose it, will vote against it, and as a citizen urge others to do likewise.  Whereas hypothetically changes could be made before the RTA Board's final decision May 31st that would cause me to change my mind, that seems far-fetched given the fundamental problems of the proposal.

On April 15th I wrote you that I could not make a decision on the proposal until its benefits had been described so they could be related to the costs, and that I was unsettled that the Regional Outreach Committee was drafting a supporting statement without having before it an estimate of those benefits.  I added,

"Once a clear picture is presented of what the investment can be expected to accomplish I will seek expert assistance in answering two fundamental questions:  Are the calculated costs and benefits reasonable?  And will the services/ridership added to the transit and high-occupancy vehicles of the region be commensurate with the added costs, both capital and operating?  My support or lack of support for the proposition will be determined by those answers."

Because of the short time remaining prior to the RTA's final decision, I proceeded on the assumption that the cost and ridership estimates of the RTA are reasonable. 

I turned to the best source of expert assistance, the economic consulting firm, ECONorthwest.  It was engaged by the Puget Sound Regional Council as consultant on its "Integrated Transportation Planning" inquiry -- an exercise in how to identify and compare transportation costs, in order to work toward efficient, beneficial decisions.  It worked closely with a distinguished expert panel including figures from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Institute, Washington State Department of Transportation, University of Washington School of Engineering, Northwest Power Planning Council, and the Public Policy Center, University of Iowa.  Accordingly, ECONorthwest is conversant with the economics and the particular transportation planning issues of this metropolitan area.

Here is the conclusion:

[T]he region would be worse off by $1 billion if the RTA built the proposed system than if it did nothing at all.  Remember this is using the RTA's own estimates of benefits which we think are probably too high.  All we did was exclude the categories that our expert review panel for the PSRC project said should not be included in these types of evaluations and do a proper present value calculation.

The RTA's document, Economic benefits, system use and transportation impacts of the RTA ten-year system plan, was disappointing -- no, disillusioning.  It purported to present, under the imprimatur of the Regional Transit Authority -- a distinguished body of elected public officials -- a competent, fair calculation of the benefits of the RTA plan.  It is not a serious piece of work, it would not stand the scrutiny of dispassionate transportation economists, and it is discrediting to the institution that presented it.  It is hype.  It overstates.  It misrepresents.  It double counts.  It omits facts that are inconvenient and exaggerates when it suits its purposes.

I cannot fully summarize the shortcomings, but will give some examples:

1.  The RTA claims that $92 million worth of time per year will be saved by transit users, if the proposed system is built -- yet those savings are not offset in the slightest by the fact that walking and transfer times tend to increase with a system like the one proposed, and that the value of people's walking and waiting time is twice that of their in-vehicle time.  Also, there will be a huge volume of unaccounted time lost due to major disruptions during the ten years of construction.

2.  According to the RTA the region will receive a $70 million yearly benefit [mid-range estimate] by the construction and related employment created by the project -- and there is no estimated,  offsetting loss in employment resulting from the fact that the disposable incomes of the people of the region will be reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

3.  The RTA asserts that the people of the region will save $52 million annually in vehicle ownership, operating and insurance costs -- a legitimate benefit, but calculated at $.40 per mile which is much higher than that used in other studies.

4.  The RTA says the reduced delays for private and commercial vehicles will be worth $20 million per year to the economy -- a legitimate benefit, but overstated; latent demand tends to increase congestion and minimize timesaving; the figure used for the value of commercial travel, $100 per hour, is nearly twice what is considered reasonable.

5.  The RTA will add $20 million per year in tourist expenditures -- the transit system is unlikely to influence tourist visits.
Relying on its extravagant assumptions, the RTA concludes that it will swiftly recompense the region for its investment, and from that point make a positive contribution to the regional economy:

...the total measurable benefit [of the ten-year RTA plan] exceeds the total accumulated cost by about 2015.

I do not believe that statement will, by an exceedingly wide margin, stand serious scrutiny.  An added disquiet I now have is that, if the claimed benefits are overstated and misrepresented, can people have confidence in the construction cost estimates and estimated ridership?  Serious cost overruns are common in urban rail projects -- particularly when tunneling is involved.  The technical challenges of tunneling under the Lake Washington Ship Canal, Capitol Hill, and First Hill are daunting.  That is why business people on the East Side are so determined that there be a "firewall" built around the tunnel project -- so the risk and responsibility will be borne solely by the taxpayers of Seattle/North King County.  (It was reported to me that at a recent public meeting, a resident of Issaquah expressed concern about the cost and viability of the tunnel.  The RTA representative did not defend the project; he simply reassured her that she, a resident of Issaquah, did not need to concern herself.)

A great disservice will be done to the people and businesses of this region if an official document of purported benefits of the RTA plan is put forth that does not competently present a reasonable estimation of true benefits.  That could prompt the voters and policymakers to make an unwise and imprudent decision.  I am proposing that ECONorthwest do a more extensive analysis.  I make this further suggestion to you:  That you, as chair of the RTA Regional Outreach Committee, commission an impartial body to select two or three prestigious, independent transportation economists to carefully review the RTA's claimed benefits, and for each economist to report his/her conclusions.

Before closing, I want to revisit the reasons why, from the start of my appointment to the Regional Outreach Committee, I urged that careful attention be paid to the costs and benefits -- to the merits -- of any proposals:

o The entire RTA process seems wedded to a facile, a priori assumption that contemporary rail technology is well-suited to the transit needs of American cities, like Seattle.  Yet the scholarly literature casts grave doubt on that proposition, and generally concludes that prospective urban rail projects should be approached with great caution.  The most definitive, broadest-based contemporary study of urban American transportation, Avoiding the Collision of Cities and Cars:  Urban Transportation Policy for the Twenty-first Century (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and The Aspen Institute: 1993), reached the following conclusion:

Given the overall record of investment in rail transit over the last twenty years, the participants do not generally favor additional such investment in the present price environment.

o       During the past 30 years Boston, Massachusetts, has developed an urban transit infrastructure very much like that proposed by the RTA.  (Remembering that the RTA's current proposal is "phase one.")  According to the definitive study of a highly-regarded scholar from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, Dr. Jose Gomez-Ibanez, Big-City Transit Ridership, Deficits, and Politics: Avoiding Reality in Boston (American Planning Association Journal: Winter 1996), the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's impressive investments in rail over the past three decades have had the following result:  Transit ridership has been just about even -- hence its marketshare has plummeted -- and the annual transit subsidy has grown from $21 million to $575 million!  Further, the MBTA is facing a fiscal crisis at this moment, because the yearly $575 million subsidy does not fully cover its costs.  New taxes will have to be imposed -- because, once service is instituted, and people's lives and businesses adjust to rely on it, it is near-impossible to undo, no matter the burden.

o       Several times during our committee's deliberations it has been declared that some measures that may be exceedingly efficient and beneficial, starting with price signals like congestion pricing or the phasing out of parking subsidies (two measures that rank high in the recommendations of the Avoiding the Collision of Cities and Cars report), or converting existing SOV lanes to HOV (as on the 520 bridge), cannot be done -- because they are too controversial.  Instead, we should persuade voters and taxpayers to advance $3.7 billion, plus carry a long-term debt, plus bear dramatic increases in operating and maintenance costs -- for a very dubious result.  Professor Gomez-Ibanez has a sage warning we should take to heart:

One natural response to a difficult public problem is to avoid it.  If there is
no politically palatable solution, it may be in no one's interest to take the issue on, or perhaps even to acknowledge it exists.

o Next week an interesting trial opens in Los Angeles.  The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has brought a class action suit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority.  The cause of the suit is the MTA's rail project.  In carrying out its ambitious rail plan the capital costs and operating costs have been so burdensome that the MTA has diverted funds away from bus service.  Accordingly, a relatively small number of higher-income, suburban train riders are traveling in lavishly-subsidized style while bus service for in-city and lower-income people is  deteriorating.  Not only is there an equity issue involved, as the LA rail project has proceeded the absolute number of LA transit riders -- on buses plus trains -- has decreased by 20%!

o Steve Fitzroy, a senior transportation planner for the Puget Sound Regional Council's until 1995, worked closely with the previous RTA proposal.  Because of his background knowledge -- and the fact that he now lives and works elsewhere, so is free to give his unalloyed assessment -- I wrote and asked his opinion of the current RTA proposal.  His reply:

The burden of servicing the ongoing operating debit (not to mention the financing of the required capital improvements for the RTA's plan) will require a level of inter-governmental cooperation that will make the effort to pass the current capital referendum seem like child's play.  And the second guessing that will accompany the inevitable shortfall in expected ridership on any new rail-based transit system will undermine any political agreement reached for financing both capital and operating indebtedness.  If you, or one of the members of the [Dick] Ford committee were to take a realistic look at the full costs of investment in even a modest rail proposal, I'm sure that you would find that amortized capital costs would soon be overwhelmed by financing the annual debit of operating even under somewhat optimistic ridership estimates (and become a nightmare using the "no significant ridership growth" scenario that has played out in every major metropolitan area that has introduced rail systems in the last quarter century).

Dick, my decision to oppose the RTA proposal does not in the slightest stem from a lack of awareness that this region has a transportation crisis.  Nor from an unwillingness to support taxes and public investments to address it.  To the contrary, I fervently believe we have a transportation crisis and that it is deteriorating at an alarming rate.  I believe we are far too reliant on the automobile and that a good public transit system is critically important for the region -- and absolutely essential for the significant part of the population that is utterly dependent on transit for mobility.  I am more than willing to support tax increases, local and state, to address those needs, providing the investments are sound applications of public resources, that will effectively address the problem.  That's  the test the RTA's proposal fails.

For several years I have tried to convince the RTA to proceed with close attention to the most cost-effective measures.  I have encouraged the Regional Outreach Committee to consider "least cost planning" or "integrated transportation planning" as a useful tool that should be applied.  I feel a sense of failure in not managing to persuade either the RTA or the Regional Outreach Committee to focus more attention on the cost and benefit issues.  I have a high personal estimation of RTA chairman Bob Drewel and his predecessor, Bruce Laing; of Seattle City Council's RTA representative, Martha Choe; and of you, among others; and have no doubts that all of you are trying to do something that will benefit this region.  I believe, with the current RTA proposal, a serious mistake has been made and that we need to go back to the drawing board.  The nub of the problem, I think, has been an unbending commitment to rail, regardless, and a disinclination to face problems squarely and broaden thinking.  For instance, since there does not appear to be a way to run a rail line from the University District to downtown Seattle at a reasonable cost, it is imperative to think of an alternative to doing so.

Finally, I know that many people support rail out of a desperation that a crisis is upon us and they can see no other alternative to the automobile.  Unfortunately, the combination of desperation and hope drives us to invest heavily in a technology that simply is not (with few exceptions) increasing the marketshare of transit riders or holding costs within reasonable bounds.  We have better options.  The technology is available to create transit systems that overcome the fundamental shortcomings of existing rail technology -- too costly and too inflexible to collect and distribute people within urban areas, given the modest densities that characterize almost all American cities.  Rather than continuing to make huge investments that bring marginal returns, the urban transit authorities of America should express their active interest in the development of transit technologies that can deliver service superior to trains at dramatically lower cost -- and define the criteria of cost and service they require as a condition of their investments.
The front-piece quote to Avoiding the Collision of Cities and Cars, taken from Henry Bessemer, inventor of the steel-making process that bears his name, is apt:

I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem, inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to
control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.

We need some fresh thinking, and a hard-headed willingness to be directed by what works, not by what sells.


Emory Bundy

PS:  It occurs to me to add a note from an explicitly environmental perspective.  The production and use of energy is of unparalleled significance to both the economy and the environment.  Sound energy policy is essential to the health of both.  Transportation is our leading consumer of energy -- and a leading polluter and consumer of land, especially in urban areas.  Trains have a marked environmental advantage over automobiles.  But huge capital investments and substantial, ongoing operating costs for urban rail systems that do not significantly displace automobile use, diminish the opportunity and fiscal capacity to undertake effective measures.  We need to utilize our existing transportation infrastructure more efficiently, improve transit ridership, pursue more promising technologies, and better support sublime transportation alternatives like bicycling and walking.  That is the course to a better environment and a stronger economy.

 June 10, 1996

Dick Ford, Chairman
RTA Regional Outreach Committee
Preston Gates & Ellis
701 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5000
Seattle, Washington  98104

Dear Dick and ROC Members:

cc:        Bob White, Executive Director
   Regional Transit Authority

I was dismayed by Bob White's May 17th letter to you, at my apparent failure to make clear my position on regional transportation.  So I would like to restate and clarify it:

1.  1995 Metropolitan Transportation Plan:  As indicated in my Minority Report, I favor the general approach summarized in the Puget Sound Regional Council's 1995 Metropolitan Transportation Plan.  It emphasized increasing the efficiency with which we use the existing transportation system, pricing strategies, better land use, moderating demand through aggressive Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies, improved public transit services, prudent investments to support bicycling and walking, and necessary investments in new road capacity in developing areas.  It emphasized "cost-effective" approaches. 

2.  Least-Cost Planning/Integrated Transportation Planning: A conscientious pursuit of cost-effective transportation measures requires a rigorous planning process (by whatever name) seeking to optimize transportation investments.  The most fiscally effective and prudent measures should be accorded highest priority.  The region faces an alarming transportation crisis, so it is critical that resources be applied in a timely fashion to optimal effect.

3.  Specific Recommendations:  Having not had $50 million, staff, and years of planning time, I cannot put forth precisely the alternate measures that would be prioritized by a fair, unbiased, rigorous approach.  But there is abundant evidence of likely conclusions that would be reached by a cost-effective approach, drawing on existing data and contemporary experience here and elsewhere.  It would start with measures to use existing transportation capacity more efficiently.  Some examples:

a.  TDM/Boeing:  Boeing has responded in an effective way to implement the state's commute reduction law.  It is ahead of schedule in its plan to reduce SOV commutes by its workforce by 35%.  That number will rival the number of new transit riders projected for both the RTA's light rail and commuter rail projects.  The cost of Boeing's implementation is modest, and substantially recompensed by the value of the land recovered from parking lots.  Boeing may be the nation's leading user of vanpools, an exceedingly efficient transit investment.  The balance of the effort is being accomplished by offering employee bus passes, incentives for carpooling, ride-matching services, accommodations for bicyclists, and promotional efforts.  Boeing is but one company taking such measures, though it is distinguished by its size and leadership.  Besides laws, regulations, and admonitions to employers, it may be worth it to the region to invest substantial public funds in such measures-especially if the alternative is enormously more costly.

b.  TDM/U Pass:  The University of Washington has instituted an analogous set of measures, including a negotiated arrangement with Metro assuring dramatic improvements in bus service to the campus and heavily discounted fares.  Cost for SOV parking has been raised, and improved support for carpooling, transit, and bicycling has been instituted.  Costs are substantially offset by increased parking fees and the avoided costs of new parking structures.  Neighboring communities and businesses have benefited greatly from congestion relief.  More progress can be made-but already the reduction in SOV use rivals that projected for the RTA's $669 million commuter rail project (plus financing costs and a $3-$5 subsidy per rider).  And the benefit is now, not a decade off.

c.  TDM/tax incentives:  Senator Kathleen Drew's bill, adopted by the State Legislature, provides $1.5 million in tax incentives to support efforts of  businesses of any size to reduce SOV utilization by employees.  It will induce by incentive what the commute reduction law pursues by regulation.  It predicts the reduction of 16,000 commute SOVs in four years.  That will remove two-thirds as many cars as the RTA's light rail project, in one-third the time, at one-900ths the cost.  Sen. Drew may be optimistic about the cost relative to benefits.  Perhaps it will take several times $1.5 million to remove 16,000 cars.  Even so, it is a trivial sum compared to the proposed rail's operating cost, much less its capital cost.  As the plan unfolds and experience accumulates, it will prove wise to set far higher targets for SOV reduction through tax incentives.

d.  Pedestrians and bicycles:  Transportation planner William Eager advocates that we invest in bicycling to the extent it is cost-effective to do so.  We don't.  Even so, the number of pedestrian/cycling trips in our region, today, approaches the number served by transit.  With modest, targeted investments such trips could be expanded substantially.  70% of the trips taken in this region are no more than five miles, well within the reach of a healthy individual with a bicycle. Similarly affluent communities in Europe demonstrate the possibilities.  Furthermore, pedestrians and cyclists pay all their own operating costs and impose virtually no adverse impacts on the environment.

e.  Pricing strategies:  Mr. White reports that for now elected officials are not prepared to proceed with congestion pricing.  While there is a great deal to recommend congestion pricing, it is but one in an arsenal of pricing strategies that deserve consideration.  Employers who are cashing out employees' free parking, so they no longer subsidize SOV and penalize alternatives, are engaged in pricing strategies.  As is the U Pass.  Granted, much  public education is needed about pricing, and good planning.  Suggesting that a multi-billion dollar capital investment in two rail projects, for a hoped-for 37,000 new transit riders* will alleviate congestion-with all objective evidence to the contrary-is the kind of misinformation that makes realistic adaptations more difficult.

f.  Buses:  The RTA could protest that it is charged only with serving high-capacity transit.  And it is true that effective TDM measures will place additional burdens on transit -- which, even with improved efficiency, will require new capacity.  The RTA's Economic benefits, system use and transportation impacts of the RTA ten-year system plan  claims this region will increase transit ridership 47% between now and 2010 if its $3.9 billion plan is implemented.  But that is a deceptive claim.  Consider the following:

i.  Do nothing:  While the 47% figure is impressive, it is standard practice to show where the region would be in 2010 if we "do nothing"-that is, keep advancing what we already are doing, with existing plans and resources.  The RTA's report fails to do that.  A disaggregation of the 47% claim will demonstrate that a major part of it will be accomplished by the ongoing efforts of the transit systems, within the existing tax structure.  It is deceptive for the RTA to obscure that fact.

ii.  RTA/Buses:  If one further disaggregates the RTA's numbers, the major additional transit passengers between now and 2010 will be the result of added investment in buses, not rail.  The bus investments, including streamlined services and new capacity, are more cost-effective.

g.  HOV:  While there are questions about the best way to complete the HOV system, and allocate costs, it represents a regional transportation investment markedly superior to either the light rail or commuter rail.

h.  Rail:  Rail is a transportation mode deserving consideration along with other modes.  When analysis indicates that its amortized plus operating cost, in relation to service provided, is superior to alternatives, it deserves support.  In general, however, the performance of new intraurban rail projects in America has been disappointing, the victim of high capital costs, dispersed settlement patterns, and the omnipresence of the automobile.  Even so, there are some promising examples of rail-especially when existing rail corridors can be put into service at competitive cost.  If we find comparable opportunities in the Puget Sound region they will merit support.  Based on the RTA's cost and ridership projections, it is abundantly clear that the proposed rail plans do not represent attractive opportunities.

i.  New technology:  I do not agree with Mr. White that there is no place for new technology as a substitute to contemporary intraurban rail technology.  I believe exactly the opposite.  But it also is likely that when we have a cost-effective technology that can efficiently collect and distribute people, it will alter the economics of rail in a positive direction.  My basic point is that it makes no sense to introduce a technology into circumstances for which it is demonstrably ill-suited-and transit agencies ought to declare clear cost and performance criteria that will help guide and encourage the development of appropriate technology.  (That's what an airline would do-it wouldn't knowingly buy off-the-shelf equipment guaranteed to diminish its financial health.)

4.  Anecdotal comments vs. "the unique features" of the Central Puget Sound region:  Mr. White takes me to task for what he says are anecdotal comments, with reference to Boston and Los Angeles.  Let me retrace what in fact I said.  First I cited an authoritative and extensive review of contemporary US transportation, which reached the following conclusion:

Given the overall record of investment in rail transit over the last twenty years, the participants do not generally favor additional such investment in the present price environment.

The study, Avoiding the Collision of Cities and Cars: Urban Transportation Policy for the Twenty-first Century (1993), was sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Aspen Institute.  It engaged eminent transportation planners, urban planners, economists, lawyers, business experts, civil engineers, environmental scholars, and energy experts from the following institutions:  Harvard University, Brookings Institution, University of Southern California, University of California at Berkeley, Union of Concerned Scientists, University of California at Irvine, World Resources Institute, Yale University, Brandeis University, Kirkland & Ellis, UCLA, Surface Transportation Policy Project, University of Texas, Rails to Trails Conservancy, AeroVironment Inc., Environmental Defense Fund, and University of California at Davis.

I illustrated the general point with two relevant examples, Boston and Los Angeles.

Mr. White appears to argue that the Seattle area is unique in some undefined way that will enable it to avoid the consequences that have befallen other cities that have instituted similar measures.  (The consequences are much higher costs, usually without any gain in marketshare.)  The fundamental problem that afflicts other cities-and will afflict Seattle-is breathtakingly simple:  Since transit is highly subsidized, the scale of its use is encapsulated by the level of subsidy.  (In King County, taxes pay 75% of Metro's $200 million-plus annual budget, riders pay but 25%.)  If you take a highly-subsidized transit technology (bus), and overlay a significantly more costly intraurban transit technology (rail), the invariable result is higher taxes without a commensurate benefit.

5.  "Is it bad public policy to [give] the public a service for which they have voted and are willing to tax themselves?"  So asks Mr. White in response to my observation that many people do not have an appreciation of the costs/benefits of urban rail systems (especially those that involve tunneling), and as a result are calling for wildly unrealistic projects.  Under those conditions, yes, it is bad public policy.  And if those in positions of responsibility and access to professional expertise and data fail to forthrightly acquaint voters with the best available information-worse, if they pander to wishful thinking, and mislead people-it is very bad public policy indeed, and a violation of public trust.

Further, it doesn't move us towards a workable response to the transportation challenges we face.  Harvard University's Professor Jose Gomez-Ibanez started his article about Boston transit, started with the following observation:

One natural response to a difficult public problem is to avoid it.  If there is no politically palatable solution, it may be in no one's interest to take the issue on, or perhaps even to acknowledge it exists...In the end, however, problems that keep growing cannot be ignored, and delays may add to the cost and difficulty of the eventual solution....

This pattern of avoiding hard choices is being repeated in the debate over public transportation ridership, service, and finance in most major United State metropolitan areas.  The basic problem is how to maintain or increase public transport ridership without widening the gap between transit costs and passenger revenues; this gap, which we call the transit deficit, is usually financed by the taxpayer.  In the last several decades most metropolitan areas have been promoting public transportation as a way to reduce traffic congestion, control air pollution by automobiles, and preserve the mobility of citizens who do not have ready access to automobiles.  At the same time, however, the underlying economics of mass transit have been deteriorating, as real incomes rise and jobs and residences move to the suburbs.

6.  ECONorthwest:  Mr. White dismissed the economic review of ECONorthwest.  He did not refute a single fact or assumption presented.  The cost assumptions attributed to the RTA are explicitly taken from the RTA's report, Economic benefits, system use and transportation impacts of the RTA ten-year system plan (April 24, 1996).  The analytical assumptions ECONorthwest used are those devised by a distinguished expert panel convened by the Puget Sound Regional Council, including figures from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Institute, Washington State Department of Transportation, University of Washington School of Engineering, Northwest Power Planning Council, and the Public Policy Center, University of Iowa.  ECONorthwest was the PSRC's consultant on the project.  Then ECONorthwest used the standard methods of transportation economists to calculate the value of the RTA's proposed investment over time.  While the RTA has clearly not sought to optimize transportation investments-and in that sense has fallen short of what I would prefer-it has only been in the course of this process that it has come to light  that its plan likely will cause affirmative harm to the region's economy.  That is, it will cost substantially more than any plausible benefit that will be realized.

Granted, ECONorthwest's analysis was a rough estimate, produced quickly.  How could it be otherwise?  The RTA only submitted its case on April 24, 1996, the Regional Outreach Committee was to conclude its recommendations on May 17, and the RTA board was to make its final decision May 31.  Given the stakes involved the issues merit closer scrutiny.

But it is the RTA that controls the $50 million in public funds allocated for study and community participation.  The RTA virtually monopolizes the data, and resources for review.  It has an Expert Review Panel, but the panel was hand-picked, and not all of its members are truly independent.  Bob White did not comment on my plea to Dick Ford:

That you, as chair of the RTA Regional Outreach Committee, commission an impartial body to select two or three prestigious, independent transportation economists to carefully review the RTA's claimed benefits, and for each economist to report his/her conclusions.

Mr. White claims that the RTA's proposal "will stand the intense scrutiny of outside experts."  Let's test it.  Let's use a tiny portion of the public funds  to commission two or three independent transportation economists to review the RTA's case, as summarized in its Economic benefits, system use and transportation impacts of the RTA ten-year system plan (April 24, 1996), and ECONorthwest's admittedly rough and swiftly produced analysis of it.  Select the experts in a manner that will inspire the confidence of RTA advocates and skeptics alike.  Keep the issue focused, keep the cost modest, and get the reviews done promptly.  Fully report all findings. 

With $3.9 billion of public funds in the balance, plus weighty issues of lost time, lost opportunities, and public trust, this issue deserves to be confronted and resolved.  Is indeed the RTA sufficiently confident of its case that it will enable it to be independently reviewed and evaluated?


Emory Bundy

When the RTA claims a "new rider" it means a one-way rider, while a "new bicycle commuter," or a "new vanpool rider," or a "new carpool rider" commutes from home to work and back again.  So the RTA's estimate of 32,000 "new riders" on light rail and 5,000 "new riders" on commuter rail is equal to 18,500 "new riders" when one uses the English language in a conventional manner.

(c) 2000 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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