Political Column #46 – The Public Transportation Cunundrum

The Public Transportation Cunundrum

Published March 14, 2019 in the RB NewsJournal and the Poway Chieftain

The history of  transportation projects is chock full of massive cost overruns, and bad forecasting of traffic. Most failures can be traced back to one universal fault — lack of reality. Read on.

The Public Transportation Conundrum

Every few years, someone in local government suddenly becomes aware that our public transportation system isn’t working. And they do what they always do – they commission a study. That precipitates the usual spate of proposals – all doomed to failure because of one major flaw. They are not based on reality.

All proposals are based on assumptions. For public transportation, estimates are made for passenger load, time-of-day frequencies, fares riders are willing to pay, distances riders are willing to walk to busses and trolleys, how long riders are willing to wait for a conveyance, etc. On the cost side, they produce figures for infrastructure, vehicles, maintenance, personnel, inflation, and administrative support.

Estimates (assumptions) are the backbone of any proposal. It would be helpful if we could rely on valid assumptions, but something gets in the way. The values produced are frequently distorted by prejudice. Proponents of a particular public transportation solution look at a range of possibilities and nearly always select the most optimistic numbers as their “most likely” scenario. The distortion is exacerbated when the cost assumptions are also based on a best case scenario.

So the public is likely to be presented with a candy-coated proposition, which is advertised as a can’t miss outcome, when it represents a best chance of about 50% and in reality has less than ten percent chance of being achieved. Thus, on a financial basis alone, the solutions are doomed to failure. Add in risk, which rarely gets enough respect, and the project is looking at potential massive cost overruns and less than needed patronage to be sustainable.

One might ask: why do people use bad numbers? Part of the cause is over-exuberance, wanting to believe in the better scenario. Wishes are confused with reality. Another factor is that if the earnings/cost issues weren’t gussied-up, supporters wouldn’t be able to sell the proposition. The numbers have to show a healthier financial picture. So, a little lie here and a little fudge there, and now you have a great big fairy tale. But since these are all based on assumptions, and it’s hard to challenge the assumptions, the proposals pass for truth.

When I tried to use San Diego busses, I was dismayed by the impossible scheduling. For instance, I needed to go from RB to downtown San Diego in mid-day. The express busses don’t run then. I was not going to spend well over an hour (plus waiting time) getting downtown by bus. Have you even noticed the #20 bus pass by with at most a couple of passengers – on a double-length articulated bus? What is wrong with this picture? Perhaps smaller busses, running more frequently, would make more sense. Might the fuel savings and the increased patronage balance the cost of extra drivers and tilt the system toward practicality?

Designers talk about the “last mile” issue, in which solutions are aimed at addressing how to get riders closer to their destinations. This is essential. It worked for me when I had to go to a conference in Anaheim. I drove to Oceanside and took the train to Anaheim. A bus was waiting at the station to transport travelers along Katella Avenue to the convention center and Disneyland. That’s how it should work.

We don’t have to go very far to cite examples of local transportation failures. SR-125, the South Bay Expressway (toll road) opened in 2007 and declared bankruptcy in 2010. It was built for $635 million. SANDAG bought it for $341.6 million (it was appraised at $287 million). SR-73, the Orange County toll road opened in 1997. Projected revenue for 2013-2014 was $171 million. Actual was $10 million.

We’ll probably never know the extent of the overblown projections for the California bullet train. Cost assumptions were off the wall. But even worse were the projections for private sector buy-in, which never materialized. Even the long-suffering public won’t buy-in to supporting public transit – as they demonstrated by defeating a 2017 proposition calling for a half-cent sales tax to support highways and transit. The realities relative to costs, patronage, and investment cannot be ignored.

For any public transportation system to work in San Diego, the solutions must address the issue of frequency, with both express and local conveyances integrated with timed connections. They must build the system based on what riders will use, rather than what they wish them to embrace. But even with all of this, no solution will work unless the designers base their proposals on reality.

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