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May 23-30, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Go Round And Round

Several weeks ago Nūz crunched a caboose-load of passenger, pedestrian and performance data from numerous sources to explore the potential of countywide train service to relieve transportation congestion, and at what cost.

This week we'd like to compare the potential of buses to offer such relief. And again, in a county in which the poverty rate is increasing--from 10.8 percent in 2004 (U.S. Census) to 12 percent in 2005 (Public Policy Institute of California) alone, we need to look at cost per person.

Now, of course, comparing transit modes, such as buses and trains, is like herding squirrels: no matter how many data points one collects, there is still another hiding in a gnarled branch munching away at whatever conclusion one believes one has reached. So with that understanding, let's see what we can do by rounding up 10 different common transit cost factors.

Luckily for Nūz's basement-dwelling number crunchers, the first of the 10--that of assembling rights of way across topographical expanses so that straight-line travel is possible--is already done. The rights of way to public roads and to train tracks have been established for decades.

The second cost--that of putting down roadbeds (for buses, asphalt or concrete; for trains, gravel and tracks)--is also already accomplished. Roads for buses, and tracks for trains, are in place.

And those are significant boon to calculation, because--as shown by the Arana Gulch bike-bridge project--trying to carve swaths through already-occupied areas can be time-consuming and torturously complex.

So, those being accomplished, we can speed right along to the third factor, which for publicly operated services is the cost of arranging uninterrupted public access through purchase, lease or easement. The bus part of this is done, since the public already owns every major county road. The train part, as noted in the last installment in this series, is not. The cost of buying right of way and roadbed is $19 million, the majority already set aside by the state if used by a certain date--and also, according to some sources, if followed by actual train service. Or maybe not, depending on how one reads the state law offering funds for rail-related congestion relief--or on whether one emphasizes any of three different phrases in a 2003 letter from high-level state transit staffer Kathie Jacobs saying that if no congestion-relieving transit follows, the state might or might not want money back, and on whether that letter represents legally binding state policy or is simply the opinion of a current staffer, subject to change.

Suffice it to say that as far as we know, the approximate cost to acquire the right of way the tracks occupy (with or without ownership of some parcels of land under and around them, which has emerged as a new question in recent months) is $19 million, or around $101 per adult county taxpayer--to both secure the entire 32-mile, county-long right of way for public use and, perhaps more important in the long run, prevent it from being divvied up into pieces that can never be reassembled.

Which, in Nūz 's humble editorial opinion, makes buying the tracks, at a price of around 3 bucks per person per year over the 30-year span of the master transportation planning period, a pretty good deal.

But back to the analysis: the fourth cost in getting any transit system going is upgrades to make them fully operable. Here again, as cited in Nūz 's last transit installment, the basic cost to get our current, pokey 10-mph freight train system up to standard 25-mph local passenger train speed is around $24.5 million; connecting up the Watsonville /Pajaro station, around $15 million. Add that to the cost of buying the right of way, and we reach around $60 million. And if Pacific Union's accumulated grants of right of way don't include ownership of the properties involved, or if said grants don't survive transfer of ownership, the cost could swell.

Fans of the road system should, however, hold off on opening the champagne, because it turns out that upgrading the countywide road system--the surface roads on which virtually all bus routes travel--will cost as much or more. In fact, the Regional Transportation Commission's Travel Funding Task Force, headed by Fred Keeley, offers three estimates for three different plans ranging from $165 million to $333 million .

Since these, however, include repairs and enhancements for both main urban surface roads and rural roads, which most buses will never travel, we're going to use an estimate from the multimode-promoting Campaign for Sensible Transportation, which estimates main road upgrades to cost around $70 million.

So adding up the first four factors--rights of way, roadbeds, access and upgrades--local train and bus systems will, apparently, cost around the same to get into proper shape for long-term use.

Now let's move on to costs of ongoing operation. And here, we'll have to press far-flung data into service, since all costs are projected. The fifth cost of setting up a transit system is that of purchasing the transit vehicles themselves. The average full-size light rail train car, seating 30 to 90 passengers, accommodating up to four cars per train and able to proceed on grades as steep as 7 percent, costs $2 to $3 million, spread over a vehicle life expectancy of 25 to 30 years. The average full-size bus, seating 44 to 62 passengers and able to proceed on grades as steep as 10 to 13 percent, costs $200,000 to $500,000, and has a life expectancy of nine to 12 years.

Let's average out vehicle costs by life expectancy. Train cars: $2.5 million over 27.5 years equals around $90,000 per year. Buses: $350,000 average over 10.5 years, replaced 2.6 times over that same 27.5 years, equals around $86,700 a year.

Now let's figure in passenger capacities. At 53 average passengers per bus and 60 average per train car, train cars have an average capacity 13 percent higher than buses. Combining that with their 3 percent extra cost, we end up with a 10 percent cost differential. That, though, is expecting trains that are running at their full capacity. Given that most transit in the United States operates for most times at far less than capacity, however--only 20 percent of trips occur during passenger-stuffed urban peak hours--any differences in vehicle cost, per passenger, between buses and trains is somewhere between small and smaller.

The sixth significant cost in setting up a transit system is the cost of labor to run the vehicles and administrate the system. And here, scale is everything. Larger cities' longer runs, in which just one driver scoots around hundreds of passengers in multiple train cars, offer low labor costs per passenger. In smaller areas, where fewer ride per trip and multiple cars are unnecessary even if along for the ride, the driver-per-passenger ratio resembles that of buses. Same with phone personnel and cleanup crew. So, in rural areas, there's little difference.

As for the seventh cost--that of attracting passengers--when all things are equal--that is, when train and bus systems offer similar speed, frequency and convenience, running along multiple high-density points of origin and destination--trains win hands down. People like them, and flock to them 20 to 30 percent more frequently than to buses. When they don't--when they're more distant from start and end points than buses--that difference lessens.

With the eighth cost--that of constructing of any secondary structures such as stations, parking lots and connecting appurtenances--bus systems offer significantly lower costs. Passengers don't expect every major bus stop to have an extensive sheltering structure, platform station or dedicated parking lot. Riders do expect those at major stops on rail systems. And their absence negatively affects ridership rates. So here, buses cost a bit less. Again, that difference declines in more informal, rural systems, where expectations are more moderate.

The ninth cost, that to individuals to use the system, varies significantly. Luckily, though, the American Public Transportation Association gathers fare figures annually from around the nation. And for the last year available, 2004, it reports all surveyed U.S. passengers' average heavy rail fare at $1.06, light rail fare at 67 cents and bus fare at 75 cents. Commuter rail fares--important to note because some folks see local rail as potentially replacing auto commuting--are far higher, at an average of $3.90. But for strictly local rail and bus, the difference in fares is minor.

Tenth, and finally, we have the environmental cost in fuel used, and pollution generated, by the systems. Here, unfortunately, we run into the squirrel-herding syndrome. Do we compare fuel used and pollution emitted only on the roadbeds themselves, or--as in the case of electric trains--produced at distant power plants? The environmental costs of delivering replacement asphalt, concrete, tracks and trestles? Contaminants involved in manufacturing, and eventually, hauling off and disposing of end-of-life vehicles?

These questions are complex. A British bus-promoting group has demanded that all U.K. rail tracks be ripped up and replaced with "less polluting" new hybrid buses. A Boston rail group claims that bus systems have "poisoned" entire neighborhoods and must, as a matter of environmental justice, be replaced with rail.

The Campaign for Sensible Transportation, though, offers a locally applicable answer, in adapting and published a chart comparing bus and train CO²-release levels to that of autos per passenger-mile, and showing both to offer a near-equal and significant improvement. Good enough.

Collect Your Nuts!

So: what have we learned from this 10-factor data-herding operation? Central conclusion: assuming equal ridership, cost per passenger mile--which is the gold standard, bottom line, gimme-the-numbers figure summarizing nearly all types of transit investment--appears to be nearly identical for local bus and train system expansions. The question is, therefore, whether we can assume anything near equal ridership. And the unfortunate answer is: no.

Even the group that wrote the county's 1998 Master Transportation Investment Study--rail promoter, rail group donor and signatory to the ultra-ambitious rail-restoring American Passenger Rail Agreement--consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff--says that local rail will provide "no reductions in congestion."

Contrarily, "improved bus performs the 'best' of all the strategies in terms of capturing transit trips, decreasing vehicular usage, and increasing transit opportunities." And, says the county's 2005 Regional Transportation Plan, bus system improvements promise "highest total transit use." This is not because buses are better or trains are worse or because anyone who backs either is wrong. Because they're not. It's because, ultimately, transportation is about what planners call 'spatial distribution': where we live, where we want to go, and how many of us there are at both ends to support the service.

And residents of Santa Cruz County live in what are, statistically, low-density neighborhoods, want primarily to go to and return from places distributed farther than common walking distance from the tracks and are not enough in number to sustain a train system.

As one of the most polite bus-vs.-train experts in the transit world--Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute--notes in an admirably courteous Canadian tone, "rather than a debate about which is better, each can be considered most appropriate in particular situations." Rail, he notes, "is best serving corridors where destinations are concentrated." And buses? "Best serving areas with more dispersed destinations and lower demand."

And that's Santa Cruz County. So just as in the 1950s, at the birth of the age of the auto and sprawl, one question dominates: will we go for the gleamy dream, or stick to the statistical reality?

Nūz says in the long run, let's do both, and use our community energy to assemble the cleanest, greenest, most beautiful bus fleet of any community--of our size and density--in the world.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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