Transit Action Network (TAN)

Advocates for Improved and Expanded Transit in the Kansas City Region.

High Cost Combined with Low Ridership and Insignificant Time-Savings Hurts Rail in the Commuter Corridors Study

Posted by Transit Action Network on May 8, 2012

A lot of factors go into making a good transit project.  Most people will gladly tell you they prefer trains to buses. However, when ridership numbers, time savings and costs factors come into the picture, reality hits.  Are the ridership numbers sufficient to justify the cost? Does the project actually save commuters time? Will the project qualify for federal funds to help pay for such an expensive project?  How much would it require in local taxes?

Open House #3 April 24 @ St Paul’s School of Theology

The Jackson County Commuter Corridors Alternatives Analysis (JCCCAA) is beginning to address some of these questions. The project team had its third series of open house meetings April 24-26. (See the Open House Display boards).  One more series is planned.

This open house provided the first look at quantitative results for the current commuter corridor study. The study is not complete and some of the numbers will change.

Some additional information is needed to understand the following information from the open house.

  1. The ridership numbers and travel time are forecasts for 2035. These are the numbers you can expect to see in 23 years.
  2. The dollar figures are for 2012.
  3. The model for forecasting congestion on I-70 only indicates an additional 3-5 minutes for travel time in 2035 over travel times today. The travel time for a car was not provided for comparison.

After evaluating the information from the open house, Transit Action Network’s preliminary conclusion is that, in all probability, none of the fixed guideway alternatives would qualify for federal funding due to the relatively high cost for the low ridership and the insignificant amount of time saved. The FTA uses these factors to measure cost-effectiveness. Of course, the numbers are being revised, but considerable improvements would be needed to change this assessment. Both of the commuter rail lines plus the Rock Island streetcar line and the Rock Island Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alternatives are probably not cost-effective enough to receive capital funds for construction from the FTA.

A. I-70 Corridor from Oak Grove – Highlights

There are only two alternatives left in this corridor and they are basically the same as were studied in a 2007 Alternatives Analysis. Summary of 2007 I-70 Commuter Corridor AA

 EAST I-70 Corridor

Daily ridership by 2035

Total Capital Cost in millions

Total capital cost per rider based on annual ridership (260 days)

Travel time to 10th and Main from

Travel time in Minutes in 2035

Annual operating cost in millions

Express Bus

600

$35-$39

$237

Oak Grove

59

$3.6

DMU

1,150-2,800

$480-$600

$742-$1806

Oak Grove

61

$10.7

  1. One choice is an enhanced version of today’s highway express bus with more comfortable over-the-road coaches and significantly more service. In 2007 the recommendation was to improve the Express Buses. Compared to the 1,500 riders projected in the 2007 study, the 600 daily riders in the current study looks very low.

    Click to Enlarge I-70 corridor

  2. The second choice is a commuter train (Diesel Multiple Unit or DMU) that stays on the Kansas City Southern rail line toward the Northern Industrial District and then turns west and finishes at Third and Grand. There is a new alignment which is an improvement over the alignment in the 2007 study. There is a narrow strip of land owned by Kansas City, north of Cliff Drive by Kessler Park, that could be used instead of going through a rail yard. However, maximum daily ridership last time was 1,425 and right now this project is showing 1,150-2,800 daily riders. These ridership numbers are not significantly improved considering the project capital cost in 2007 was $102.8-168.9 million. More money is being projected for track improvements, which would increase the train speed and decrease the travel time.
  3. There is not a significant time savings for commuters using the train. The estimated time to 10th and Main from Oak Grove using the Express Bus is 59 minutes and getting to 10th and Main using the DMU plus a transfer to the streetcar is 61 minutes.

B. The Rock Island Corridor – Highlights

Four alternatives are still being considered, but they are not comparable situations.

SE corridor

Rock Island line

Daily ridership by 2035

Total Capital Cost in millions

Total capital cost per rider based on annual ridership (260 days)

Travel time to 10th and Main from

Travel time in Minutes in 2035

Annual operating cost in millions

Express Bus starts in Pleasant Hill

350

$35-$39

$407

Pleasant Hill

63rd and Raytown Road

60

48

$3.6

DMU starts in Pleasant Hill

500

$326-$413

$2,846

Pleasant Hill

65

$9.5

BRT Starts in Lee’s Summit

500

$230-$283

$1,962

63rd and Raytown Road

54

$3.2

SE Urban Corridor

Enhanced streetcar starts at 63rd street and Raytown road

1,850-2,700

$402-$538

$670-$977

63rd and Raytown Road

50

$6.1

  1. Only the Enhanced Express Bus and the Diesel Multiple Unit go to Pleasant Hill.

    Click to Enlarge SE Rock island Corridor

  2. The Express Bus is an enhanced version of today’s highway express bus with better coaches and significantly more service.
  3. The DMU travels on the Rock Island Line, then continues north toward the Northern Industrial District. North of St. John Avenue it merges with the I-70 corridor KCS line and the two lines share a common segment into Third and Grand. The cost for this line does not include the common rail section since the Rock Island DMU line would only be built if the I-70 DMU line were built.
  4. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) only goes to Lee’s Summit. It uses a new paved busway on the Rock Island line to the Sports Complex and then a fixed guideway (the two middle lanes of traffic get barriers to segregate the bus from other traffic) is built on Stadium Drive and Linwood Blvd. At Bruce R. Watkins Drive (Highway 71) it uses the freeway to get into Downtown.
  5. The Enhanced Streetcar is not really part of the commuter corridors since it has been shortened to start at 63rd Street and Raytown Road, which makes it more of an urban corridor route. The streetcar goes down Linwood Blvd in a fixed guideway (the two middle lanes of traffic get barriers to segregate the streetcar from other traffic). At Main Street it would operate in mixed traffic and turn north to meet the proposed Downtown Streetcar line at Pershing.  MARC’s Smart Moves plan consists of two types of corridors – urban corridors that serve the urban core and commuter corridors, which bring people into the city from the suburbs. In fact, the significantly larger ridership numbers projected for this “enhanced streetcar” alternative are from people in the urban core. The streetcar has significantly more riders than the BRT even though they both go down Linwood since the bulk of the streetcar ridership happens west of Highway 71 after the BRT turns north.  Because the streetcar makes several stops along Linwood and functions like an urban streetcar corridor, this alternative does not appear to serve suburban commuters very well.
  6. This is the first AA that has been done in the Rock Island commuter corridor so it is interesting to see such low ridership numbers.

    Open House #3 April 25 @ John Knox Village

  • Express bus – 350; DMU – 500; Bus Rapid Transit – 500. These ridership numbers are breathtakingly low and don’t warrant any rail investment. Even if the study increases the numbers they aren’t going to go up nearly enough to justify the cost of rail. The low ridership projections for the DMU in the Rock island corridor compared to the I-70 corridor is partly because this line doesn’t go through the main population centers of these cities and a lot of the route goes through industrial areas.

For commuters in the Southeast Corridor there are two bus possibilities:  Enhanced Express Bus from Pleasant Hill or Bus Rapid Transit from Lee’s Summit.

  1. To compare travel time between the two buses, look at the time from Raytown Road. The BRT time to 10th and Main is 54 minutes and the express bus from that location is 48 minutes. So the express bus is faster over the same distance.
  2. The Express Bus costs $35-39 million, while the BRT would entail paving the Rock Island line and establishing a fixed guideway on Linwood for a total of $230-283 million. Is the additional cost worth it for a slower travel time and only a few more people?

What about the Rock Island Streetcar? Even though the ridership is better than the other alternatives in this corridor, it is far too low for the cost.

To put this streetcar in perspective, compare it to the Downtown Streetcar project currently being planned.

Streetcar

Daily Ridership by 2035

Total Capital Cost in millions

Capital Cost per Rider-Total Capital Cost Divided by Annual Ridership based on 260 days. (JCCCAA method)

2 mile Downtown Streetcar

6,000

$101

$65

12 mile Rock Island Streetcar

1,850-2,700

$402-$538

$670-$977

 

Financing Transit in Jackson County

Once transit alternatives are selected for these corridors — i.e., once a “Locally Preferred Alternative” or LPA is determined, local funding has to be obtained.  This is true whether there is a federal contribution to the project or not.

Revenue Source

Uses

Rate/Method

Estimated Amount

Jackson County Sales Tax

Operating and Capital

1-cent sales tax (maximum)

$80 million annually

Jackson County Property tax

Operating and Capital

One mill

$82,500 annually

Farebox revenue

Operating

Fares

Typically 20% of operating costs

Federal Funding

Capital

5309 program for either New Starts (projects > $250 Million) or Bus and Bus Facilities

New Starts 30-50% of construction costs or Bus and Bus Facilities 80 %

Jackson County has special taxing authority allowing voters to approve up to a 1-cent sales tax for transit, which would collect about $80 million annually. Jackson County has significant transit needs, especially in eastern Jackson County.  Not only does commuter transit need to be improved and expanded, but transit is needed to get to other activity centers such as jobs, education, medical facilities, shopping and entertainment in areas other than downtown. (Only 14% of the region’s jobs are currently in the CBD).

Although a property tax is a possible funding source, it doesn’t raise much money.

TAN realizes the study isn’t finished and there will be changes, but the total annual cost is important to understand Jackson County’s ability to provide transit. The following numbers are based on the information presented at the April open house. We will re-do our analysis when adjusted numbers become available.

Estimated Rail and Fixed Guideway Annual Costs

Fixed guideways being studied in two corridors

TAN’s estimate of annualized capital debt service for rail (@4% interest for 25 years) in millions

Annual operating cost in millions

Total annual cost in millions

I-70 corridor DMU

$29-38

$11

$40-49

Rock Island DMU

$21-26

$10

$31-36

Rock island BRT

$15-18

$3

$18-21

SE Corridor streetcar

$29-34

$6

$35-40

Very preliminary conclusions:

Open House #3 April 24 @ John Knox Village

  1. Without federal assistance, Jackson County cannot pay for DMU rail lines in three Corridors. Study of a third corridor, the Highway 71 corridor to Grandview, is just getting under way.  It is possible that the annual costs for the DMUs in the first two corridors (as high as $49MM plus $36MM) could use up more than the 1-cent sales tax ($80 million annually) with nothing left to provide supporting bus services, much less transit to other parts of the county.
  2. Without significant federal funding, any fixed guideway options still being considered would be difficult to justify considering all the other transit needs and issues. The costs would be further complicated with a fixed guideway option in the Grandview corridor.
  3. Voters in Kansas City might object to paying a full 1-cent sales tax on commuter rail from eastern Jackson County without much benefit to taxpayers living within the City. In other words, for a transit tax to pass county-wide, there would have to be something in the package for Kansas City.
  4. Since rail projects are so expensive, most cities seek federal funding to help build projects. The FTA has only been funding large projects with a cost-effectiveness rating of at least Medium. Once a  project qualifies to be considered for federal funding, it still has to compete against other cities and recently the FTA has only been covering 30-50% of the cost of rail projects selected for funding. For perspective look at the FTA current Capital Investment Program Project Profiles.

Sample of FTA Current Commuter Rail Projects

Total project capital cost in millions

Projected Weekday ridership

Denver-Eagle Commuter Rail

$2,043.14

57,300

Orlando-Central Florida Commuter Rail Transit-Initial operating segment

$357.23

7,400

Weber County to Salt Lake Commuter Rail

$611.68

11,800

Providence, RI South County Commuter Rail (extension)

$49.15

3,500

Compare to the commuter rail being studied in Jackson County

I-70 DMU

$480-600

1,150-2,800

Rock Island DMU

$326-413(doesn’t include cost of common segment)

500

Additional very preliminary conclusions:

  1. The two DMU rail lines could cost a billion dollars to build (using high-end estimates of  $600MM plus $413MM).
  2. The capital and operating costs for the Enhanced Express Buses could be covered without federal funding, although federal dollars are much easier to get for this use. Bus projects can usually be funded without issuing bonds. Bonds were not needed for the Troost and Main Street MAX lines. The FTA often pays up to 80% of the capital cost for major improvements to bus systems. Using such an approach, there would be money for other transit services in Jackson County, even without using the full 1-cent sales tax.
  3. Jackson County could fund express buses plus a robust transit system to serve other needs in the county at the same time.
  4. TAN expects that a reasonable allocation of any county transit tax would have to clearly provide a transit benefit in the City of Kansas City. Population and sales tax revenue in Jackson County are about evenly split between Kansas City and the remainder of the county.

Summary

Open House #3 April 25 @ John Knox Village

The purpose of performing an Alternatives Analysis is to find the best transit solution to seek federal funds. Federal funds are particularly important when proposing a rail project since they are so expensive. Sometimes good plans don’t get federal funding because of intense competition, but if a plan doesn’t qualify for federal funds because it isn’t cost effective, then it probably should not be built.  Sometimes cities fund a very short 1-2 mile starter rail line but rarely are long rail lines successfully funded with only local money.

Are Jackson County taxpayers prepared to pay for major transit plans that are not sufficiently cost-effective to qualify for federal funding? We doubt it.

An out-of-town transit consultant spoke at the MARC Transit committee when the two current rail studies started. He advised people to remember that serious rail transit is about the need to move a lot of people. Non-serious rail transit is about wanting to have a train.

Transit consultants in Kansas City will tell you when they do major commuter rail studies in other cities they usually come upon a robust bus transit system that will not be able to efficiently meet demand in the next few years and needs the additional capacity that rail provides. When they come to Kansas City to study rail, no such demand exists. We don’t even have a transit system in eastern Jackson County let alone one that is bursting at the seams and needs to be upgraded to rail.

Bottom line: What is the best use of our current or potentially available public money? Where do we get the biggest transit bang for our buck? Transit Action Network is very pro-rail, but we are also realistic and cost conscious. We want to see a significant transit improvement emerge from this study, and we’re waiting for the next wave of information and for the Locally Preferred Alternative to be determined. We hope the decision will reflect the information gained from spending nearly three years and $2 million dollars studying commuter options to find the best solution for the transit needs in Jackson County. Every major metropolitan region needs a good transit system that is appropriate for the community.

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