Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paying for Rail Transit

We have a lot of people in this region talking about rail transit all of it in the context of providing service to Langford and possibly beyond. This talk keeps going and going as if it is inevitable and a reasonable choice for us to make in this region. The more I look at it, the more it seems like a very dumb idea that will cost us a lot of money with possibly limited benefits or even cause us to have a significant negative impact on the regional environment.

Few people are willing to realistically talk about the costs of putting in a rail based transit system. People make assumptions that it will be not that expensive to do because 'We own the E and N line'. People also assume that there will be a ridership for the line if it is built, that people in Langford are going to enmasse abandon their cars.

As I have pointed out concerns I have and obvious flaws with the rail based transit idea numerous times before and no one has been able to address my concerns or questions.

Problem 1 Where is it going to go?

The exisiting E&N line does not end where anyone works and only passes moderately close to one area of high regional employment - the dockyards. Why would people take this line if it is not going where they need to go? The line ends at a location with limited transit and very little space to make a transit hub.

The other alternate option is to follow along Hwy #1 and then Douglas. Not only does this add costs, it will be completely and utterly opposed by the businesses on Douglas - they could not even deal with a busway. An on grade rail transit down Douglas would cause more traffic problems than it solves and would increase green house gas emissions in the region.

Neither route strikes me as one that will work.

Meanwhile, the highest use transit use corridor in the region is from Downtown to UVic, either along Fort then Foul Bay or Douglas, Hillside and then on to UVic. Both these routes have heavy use all day long and are reaching the maximum buses can do along the route, should we not reward the people already using transit with better service?

Problem #2 - What is going to cost?

The end capital costs of building light rail in North America over the last 15 years has averaged about $30 000 000 per kilometre. A realistic estimate to build an LRT to Langford is about $500 000 000. With so many LRTs being built at the moment in US cities, the data is out there that supports this number, though most project estimates are at about 50% of that number before construction starts. If people think it will be cheaper, they have to come up with real data to show why - no one is managing to do that.

If one were use the E&N line and run a basic service one might be able to do something in range of tens of millions, but people have to aware of the limitations. Because the track is a single track the line can only offer very infrequent service - 20 to 30 minute waits for a train, 30 minutes is more realistic. If one has a three car diesel multiple unit train carrying people, you move about 180 people per run or about 700 commuter passengers - only 1/3 of the number of commuters the buses carry at the moment.

The cost of buying the rail cars is about twice as much per passenger capacity as a bus and it costs about three times as much to operate. I do not have firm numbers of the current cost to maintain the units, but I would be very surprised if it was cheaper than the buses.

As an example, the Westcoast Express costs about $16 000 000 a year to operate and it moves about 10000 riders per day. All of BC Transit in the Victoria costs about $70 000 000 to operate and it moves about 61 000 riders a day

Rail transit needs density and high levels of ridership to be able to make any financial sense.

Problem 3 - Ridership, who is going to ride the line?

Focusing on a commuter line for rail immediately causes problems for ridership. You have two peak times in one direction each where there is the demand for the service. What do you do the rest of the time? This is a problem with the Westcoast Express in Vancouver. The limited use of the rolling stock dramatically increases the costs.

The WCE moves about 10 000 people a day - roughly 5000 commuters. This from an area that has a much higher population than the Westshore. This is also an area that has a commute that is much, much worse than anything anyone in this region experiences. Even with all these good reasons to take the train, most people do not use the WCE.

At the moment there is a working population of about 35 000 people on the Westshore and in Sooke. In 20 years this number might be 50 000. The single biggest work destination is the downtown core, but it is dropping in dominance. People commute from the Westshore to all over the region. If we assume that 1/2 the people go downtown and that this number will grow slower than the population on the Westshore, we are looking at 18 000 daily trips downtown rising to about 20 000 over the next twenty years. Currently about 11% of those trips are on transit.

What is a realistic goal for transit use? If one looks at the suburbs of Vancouver, something in the range of 15% to 20% is the best one could expect. I would be very surprised if a rail based transit system from the Westshore into town would end up boosting the transit numbers by much. As much as people do not like the Colwood crawl, the traffic problems during peak hours in Victoria are minimal when compared to a place like Surrey or Coquitlam. There is a big incentive for people in the suburbs of the lower mainland to use transit but still most people choose to drive.

I think 15% is the upper limit of realistic for transit use from the Westshore in the next generation. This number means we are looking at 3000 commuters using transit after a rail transit system is in place. Of those people, not all of them will be using rail as they need to go somewhere other than downtown.

If you do not agree with these numbers, please give me some data to work with that would suggest something different. Why do you think people will leave their cars for trains when they do not use the buses?

One big set of transit users on the Westshore are people going to post secondary. None of these people will make use of a rail based transit going downtown.

Finally, there is a strong emerging trend in the work world that is going to grow dramatically over the next generation, people working from their own homes. We may actually see a fall in the number of people commuting from the Westshore to downtown even as total population grows because people are working from home.

Problem 4 - Will the line not encourage more sprawl?

No one is talking about the sprawl that a successful rail based transit will bring this this region. The easier it is for people to live further out, the more people will do it. If the commute is eased through a reduction in congestion, the population on the Westshore will rise.

More people in single family homes further away from everything they need will simply mean a lot more driving for non work reasons. The Westshore has not thought about how to make any of it function for walking.

Where I live I can walk to the library, the ice rink, the movie theatre, the community centre and a host of other things. I do drive to shop because the volumes I have to deal with are too large to carry home on my back. My reality is one that is true for a large areas of the core of the city. In Colwood and Langford there are very few people that can do the same. More people on the Westshore will mean more off hour vehicle traffic, especially if the Westhills development is built.

Each new person on the Westshore has a significantly higher environmental footprint than someone living in the core of the city. A resident of the Tillicum-Gorge neighbourhood will on average contribute about 4000 car use km per year. A resident of Langford contributes about 9000 car use km per year.

On car use alone, the Westhills development will add about 80 000 000 kilometres of car use to this region than the same number of people added to the area around the Victoria/Saanich border. That is an extra 72 million litres of gasoline - you do the math on what that means for CO2 emissions.

I am still not convinced that a rail transit system to the Westshore will make the commute any better because it will not actually dramatically reduce car commuters at all.
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