Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stimulus with our children's money

Writer Jeff Johnson has an interesting and funny proposal for stimulating the economy in the New York Times.  It's funny because it's mostly true, we are stimulating the economy by borrowing from our children. In the mean time, I saved money on the web hosting I use for this site with a discount from iPageReviewer.com

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Metro considers 16th Street limited-stop bus service

imageMetro's finance committee is going to be considering a plan to start up a 16th Street limited-stop bus service. For the first 15 months, the service will be financed by the District, but if the line meets certain performance criteria (the targests are higher than the system average passengers per trip, passengers per revenue mile and cost recovery), it will be funded by Metro as a whole through the funding formula.

The new limited-stop service will be called the S9, and will operate between Silver Spring and McPherson Square during morning (6:30-10:00) and evening (3:00-7:00) rush hours, every 10 minutes. Having the bus stop only 16 times per direction is expected to save 6-8 minutes each way. For the first full year of operation (July 2009-July 2010), DDOT is expected to pay just over $1.6M to operate the line.

In addition to operating the new bus line, Metro wants to assign two bus line supervisors to the route to better manage bus bunching and other schedule adherence problems.

Metro has some other changes to the "S" bus lines that can only be implemented after further transit study. They are considering a "turn-back" service at Colorado Ave. or Piney Branch Parkway, to more frequently service the more heavily utilized southern portion of the route; they're considering dedicated southbound morning peak bus only lanes between Piney Branch and Florida Avenue; and they're considering queue jumping lanes at two intersections along the route, where through a change in intersection design, buses would be given "head of the line" privileges at red lights. They are also studying transit signal priority, where buses can send signals to traffic lights, holding them green until the bus goes through the intersection.

This isn't the first limited-stop Metrobus service. Metro Extra route 79, which operates along Georgia Avenue and 7th/9th Streets NW, carries over 5,400 passengers per day in all-day (6am to 7pm) service from Silver Spring to Archives. Its operating cost is higher than the proposed route, with a lower current cost recovery ratio than the target for S9. It meets the other productivity requirements for the S9 line, making it pretty likely that similar service on the S9 route will be successful enough to continue. There's also the limited-stop 37 line, which operates on the 30s corridor from Friendship Heights to downtown in the peak direction only during rush hour.

If approved by the FAO committee and the full board, the new line is expected to start operating on March 29.

Virginia "Crossover Day" - Legislative Update

Virginia's Legislative Process is now about halfway through the session. Virginia's Constitution limits the length of the session to 60 days (90 days for a budget year), and bills have to be passed by February 10th of this year in order to be considered by the other house. Here's an update on the transportation bills being considered in 2009:

HB 1604: This bill authorizes borrowing $12M for a parking garage near the state capitol. It passed the House unanimously.  Identical bill SB 852 also passed the Senate, so this one is as good as law.

HB 1876: This bill looks like the winner among the many bills requiring drivers of motor vehicles to avoid the use of cell phones while driving.  The bill is a big improvement over the predecessors.  It's been reported out of the two different committees.  The provisions only apply to motor vehicles, prohibit dialing or entering text, reading emails or text messages.  The law doesn't apply to GPS navigation systems or in emergencies.  It also doesn't allow an officer to pull you over for using a cell phone (it's not a primary offense).  Penalty is a $20 fine the first time, $50 otherwise.

HB 1645:  This bill allows localities to use up to two-thirds of their highway funds to service debt for projects in any of various capital improvement programs.  This means that localities can pay for more projects through debt financing.  It passed the house unanimously.  This is similar to SB 1438, which passed the Senate 36-4.

HB 2476:  Extends until 2010 the special clean fuel plates allowing single drivers to use the HOV lanes if they drive a hybrid or other clean fuel vehicle.

On to the Senate:

SB 1402:  Increases the penalty for "Improper Driving", a lesser offense than reckless driving, from $500 to $1000.  Passed the Senate unanimously.

I encourage Virginia residents to visit Richmond Sunlight and to contact their legislators about any of these bills you feel strongly about.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Someone get me a reader from North Dakota and Alaska

Like many bloggers, I'm interested in who's out there reading.  I use online tools out there to see reader statistics, Google Analytics and Feedburner are two of them.  One of my favorite features is in Google Analytics.  It displays a map showing where your readers come from.  Since July I've almost filled in the US map, except for North Dakota and Alaska.

I'm putting out a call, I'd like to fill in the US map.  Could one of you you please forward an article you found interesting to someone you know in North Dakota or Alaska?  I know I write mostly about transportation policy in the Washington, DC area and performance parking, but perhaps these subjects might be of interest?

Andrew Biggs on the principles of the Social Security program

The US Government can now borrow for free

The Economics of Gift Giving

How I started working out (and stuck with it!)

Social Security Tricks

Well, if anyone can help me out, thanks.

For your information, no personally identifiable information is tracked with the tools I use.  It's stuff like the date and time, how you got here (whether it's a google search or a referral from another site) what your network name is (e.g., "US House of Representatives"), what pages you looked at and how long you stayed, and what link (if any) you clicked to leave.  I don't share this information with anyone except for aggregate numbers like the total visitors for an article.

Feel free to post comments on anything I write.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Observations on Philadelphia

To escape the masses for Inauguration and to take a rare family trip, we went to Philadelphia for the 4-day weekend.  Here are some of the things I noticed on my trip:

  • If you're used to DC's megablocks, the short blocks offered by an older-style city are refreshing.  Looking at a map while planning the trip, I was disappointed by how little appeared to be in walking distance.  Once I got to Philly, I think it was that I was expecting a 7 block walk to be a long distance.  Had I checked the scale of the map, I would have figured out that the blocks are much shorter than DC's, which seemed to work really well.  Philadelphia's center city has short blocks and narrow streets, which is very pleasant for pedestrians.
  • Our microwave in the hotel had ringtones.  It played "Oh, Suzanna!", "Auld Lang Syne", and some other song I've never heard.  It's actually very annoying because it doesn't turn off when you open the door, only when the song is over.  Please, just beep when you're done.
  • Laptops with no internet are boring, but $10 per day for wifi is kind of a ripoff.  I bought one day's worth but was on the lookout for free wifi everywhere.  If you like coffee there are plenty of places.
  • 30-minute headways for buses = I'm not going to bother.  Additionally, buses are inherently harder to learn as a system.  Philadelphia, like Washington, does not use Google Transit.  10 minute headways for weekend trains = great.  Also, not decreasing service just because it's the middle of the day or a federal holiday = also great.  If WMATA weren't so strapped for funding, I'd say this was a good idea.  I don't see how they could afford it, though, with their significant funding shortfall.  I think every system should have the equivalent of LA's "12-minute map" so that people who want to get around without schedules can figure out where the best part of the system goes.
  • Our hotel, the Embassy Suites, had trilateral symmetry.  Great room, but the elevators get overwhelmed, especially when an entire high school band moves in at the same time.  I would highly recommend this hotel for tourists because it's close to the city center, the museums, and transit.  Parking was expensive; I would just take one of the Chinatown buses that run 5-6 times per day for around $15 each way.  Some of the buses even have WiFi, I've heard.
  • Much as the District's street naming system seems to "confuse" tourists, at least it's a system.  If you don't live or work here, how do you memorize the pattern of east-west street names?  (Update: you just do.  I seemed to get it after a couple of days)
  • If your transit lines on the map are designated with colors, it doesn't help to have the website have you choose between the "Market Street" line and the "Broad Street" line.  Just call them the Blue Line and the Orange Line.  At least it's better than Pittsburgh, where the light rail line had a route number and was mixed in with the bus schedules.
  • 15F is really, really cold.
  • If all you're going to do is the museums and downtown, there's no need to bring a car to Philly.  Getting to Pat's King of Steaks requires either a lot of planning to figure out the bus system or a car, though.  I guess I could have taken a cab, but do they allow two-year-olds to ride without a car seat?

In all, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Philadelphia and would definitely go back.  It's highly recommended for people who like an urban/city experience as well as some great museums (National Liberty Museum, Independence Hall, Franklin Institute).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

2008 Metrobus Performance Report

I recently received the Metrobus Performance Report for 2008.  It's available here (PDF - main sheet) or here (entire collection as Excel).  As expected, a lot of the same lines are listed among the worst performers as in 2007.  Here they are for 2008:

24T: This bus only averages 189 passengers per day.  Fares only pay 9% of operating costs, and each rider costs area governments $7.24 in subsidy, for a total subsidy of almost $350,000 per year.  This performance is even lower than last year, with declining cost recovery ratio (defined as passenger revenue divided by operating costs).  Travel between the Metro and Tyson's Corner Westpark Transit station is duplicated by a much faster, more frequent bus provided by Fairfax County Connector.  Eliminating or cutting back this line further should be on the table.  There are some people along Westmoreland Street in Arlington and Lewinsville Road in Fairfax County that would lose bus service if this line is cut back, but this is the lowest performer in the system and funds should be diverted to where they can make a greater impact.

98:  This evening Adams Morgan shuttle link is still one of Metrobus' worst lines.  It's expected to be replaced with a circulator service, transferring the responsibility for funding the line to the District.  Oddly, it's not listed in the main table but shows up in each table listing lines that failed to meet basic criteria.  Like the 24T, it failed all of WMATA's performance criteria, with one of the lowest cost recoveries in the system, high subsidy per passenger (over $10 each), and low ridership (less than 6 passengers per trip even though it only runs during times that demand is expected to be high).

N8:  This line increased in failed criteria from 3 to 4.  The line decreased in ridership by over 10%, and all related performance criteria suffered.  The line serves about 350 passengers per day with a subsidy of $1M.

For lines that failed less than 4 criteria, I'm just going to list them. 

S80, S91

C7, C9 (repeat from 2007)

15K, 15L (repeat)

W19

E6 (improved in ridership since 2007)

66, 68 (declined in performance since 2007)

17 (A B F M) (repeat)

18E, 18F (repeat)

Other notable lines are the B30 and the 5A.  These are the only WMATA links to the BWI and Dulles airports.  Both have too few passengers per revenue mile, probably due to the length of the line.  Other than that, they perform adequately, with generally good cost recovery (the 5A is the highest in the system) and moderate subsidies compared to other lines.

The best lines have changed little from last year, as expected:

For daily passengers, the 30s lines were split up into different statistical bins, so they lose their #1 spot to the 70/71 combination.  The northern portion of this Georgia Avenue/7th street line is a prime candidate for upgrading, in my mind, to streetcar, but according to DC (PDF) it's unclear whether the line will be streetcar or BRT.

For cost recovery, it's the 5A followed by the 18(GHJ) express buses from Pentagon.  These lines' cost recovery is helped by the fact that they charge a premium fare for express service.  The highest cost recovery among local buses is the X2, same as last year.

By passengers per mile, it's the X2 and the 42 bus.  These lines are great "pedestrian accelerators", with relatively frequent service (check this against schedule) and low overall route length.  The X2 is on the short list for upgrading to streetcar service.

By subsidy per passenger, it's the X2 again.  I don't know why the subsidy increased so much this year, but last year it was a lot less.  Annual operating costs were higher by more than $1M, and passenger revenue was less than last year.  Ridership was down overall by about 500,000 per year. 

By passengers per trip, it's the C2/C4 combination just like last year.  I believe the data for the P12 line is not correct for number of revenue trips, based on the spreadsheet stating 6,000 trips for this year and 30,000 trips for last year, with approximately the same ridership.  I just don't buy that the same number of people are riding the same bus line, with a dramatic cut in frequency that I'd never heard of.

Just like last year, I think this performance just demonstrates how good a line the X2 is.  It's no wonder that DC is considering upgrading the line to streetcar.  Let's hope they get the funding and overhead wires issues sorted out quickly so we can start laying some tracks.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

WMATA proposes $103 million in operating expense cuts for FY 2010

WMATA has posted a special report to be presented to the Board of Directors' "Special Budget Committee" at 9am tomorrow morning. 

The big picture:  WMATA faces a $176M budget gap, due mostly to increased personnel costs ($99M) and the elimination of a one-time budget trick* employed last year to reduce a fare increase ($36M).  WMATA will present a plan to eliminate $103M of that gap, leaving management and the Board with the tough decision of how much service to cut, or whether to consider increasing fares for the second year in a row.  WMATA's member jurisdictions could be asked to provide a "cost of living" increase of 2% in the budgeted subsidy, which would reduce the shortfall by another $10M.

Cost increases:  The largest increases in costs ($44 million) come from wage increases for unionized employees, which WMATA budgeting treats as sacrosanct.  But in these hard times, unions all over the country are being asked to do their part to help keep costs down. For example, in Montgomery County the firefighters' union agreed to cuts in order to help the county balance its budget, nationally the Teamsters agreed to wage cuts of 10% in order to help keep their employers afloat.  All Headline News reports that Boston has asked its city worker's union for a wage freeze in order to help balance the budget.  Bridgeport, Connecticut workers have agreed to a two-year wage freeze as well as a five day unpaid vacation (furlough).  Would it be fair to ask the unions to compromise and agree to a cut in wages or at least a cut in wage growth rates (perhaps a one-year wage freeze)?  The cuts might save some jobs compared to having to lay off workers or cut service (which would lay off more workers).

Big Cuts:  The biggest cuts are to the metro work force, which will decrease by 292 funded positions out of over 10,000.  These cuts will keep WMATA's personnel costs from increasing by almost $100M this year.  Out of the eliminated positions, most (70%) will be from rail and bus divisions (about twice as many lost in rail as in bus),  and most of the rest will come from administrative divisions (28%).

It's hard to tell from this presentation whether most of the eliminated jobs are from slots that just haven't been filled, or whether most of them are workers who will be laid off.  According to a recent article in the Washington Post, when Metro was considering cutting 900 jobs the split was approximately half and half.  Now that the number of eliminated positions appears to have shrunk, perhaps all of the proposed staffing cuts will be from unfilled positions.  It's unclear from the previous discussion whether the 900 eliminated jobs include those that result from service cuts.

Smaller Cuts:  Other smaller cuts are to increase the number of workers per supervisor, to reorganize the staff with fewer levels of supervision, to reduce overtime, and to take advantage of today's low fuel prices.  WMATA also proposes to "employ technology-driven approach[es] to traffic/ridership measurement", which, according to Metro, should result in more accurate data collection.  As someone who is interested in data and analysis, I hope that WMATA will be forthcoming in sharing this data with the public.

In addition, non-personnel expenses (such as materials purchases) will be deferred when possible.  This should concern riders because it just pushes the problem down the road rather than actually cuts back on costs.  In that case, the required fare increases or service cuts are not eliminated, but are merely deferred until next year.  Also, if the reduction in supervision means that poor customer service or unsafe practices are not improved or prevented, it could reduce the quality of WMATA's operations.

Changes from the prior report:  Comparing this proposal to the one previously presented to the Finance, Administration and Oversight Committee in early January, there's an "Other" expense of $22M from the previous presentation that's missing from this one, and with that unexplained disappearing item, WMATA appears to have met their goal of eliminating $103M from the baseline.  The rest of the shortfall will have to be made up in service cuts, which according to the previous proposal, will cut expenses by $87M and revenues by $14M.  The presentation to be discussed tomorrow does not provide any specific proposals for service cuts.  Alternatively, the Board could decide to raise fares or the subsidy provided by local governments.  WMATA is not allowed to run a surplus or a deficit.  To close the books, any surplus (deficit) at the end of the year is returned to (or charged from) WMATA's member jurisdictions via the funding formula.  Typically, WMATA runs a surplus compared to the budget and returns some of the subsidy.

The Bottom Line:  Metro's operating costs increased by $159M, and revenues, even with increased ridership, went down by $17M.  WMATA is proposing $103M in cuts to operating expenses, leaving a $73M gap that must be filled, most likely with cuts in rail or bus service.  Future board presentations are expected to discuss changes to the FY 2010 operating revenues and potential service cuts.

*WMATA's fare increase last year started in January 2008, but the money collected from January to July was actually applied to the next year's operating revenues (running from July 2008 to July 2009).  Since WMATA can only use that trick once, there's a shortfall of around $36 million).