A Monorail for Central? Really?

seattle

Give the Church of Transitology credit. It never lets facts get in the way of dogma.

A good example of faith-based transportation can be found in today’s edition of the Albuquerque Journal. Max Macauley, “a retiree with a journalism background,” recommends that the city scrap its plan for “bus rapid transit.” He wants Albuquerque to follow the example of other cities with “authentic world-class public transit systems,” and build — this isn’t a joke — a monorail.

If Macauley had done even the slightest bit of research on the systems he admires, he would have discovered their many problems. First, the Seattle Center Monorail, built as an attraction for the 1962 World’s Fair, is only a mile long. In 2005, after years of support, voters in the notoriously “progressive” city torpedoed an effort to expand the system. (The price tag had risen to $11 billion.) In 2014, voters annihilated another expansion proposal.

lasvegas

Las Vegas’s monorail began as a short connection between MGM Grand and Bally’s. In 2000, Nevada authorities signed off on tax-free bonds for an extension that backers claimed would provide “significant public benefits.” Ridership never approached estimates. In 2010, the public-private Las Vegas Monorail Company filed for Chapter 11. It emerged from bankruptcy in 2012. Dead-ender supporters are dreaming of an extension to McCarran International Airport, a project that the Las Vegas Review Journal reports “is estimated at $500 million — more than the initial cost of the system when it was built.”

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Finally, in 2010, The Florida Times-Union‘s Larry Hannan called Jacksonville’s monorail a “joke for a generation”:

Look up at its silent, almost-empty cars and you can see the failure of downtown as a place to live and work. The dingy stations reflect Jacksonville’s inability to come up with a successful long-term transportation plan.

More than 20 years after it opened, the number of people who ride the Skyway remains low. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority originally promised 100,000 riders per month, but its average last year was less than a third of that.

And it loses money — a lot of money.

The system that was built for $183 million, more than half from the federal government, needs $14 million to operate each year — $1.5 million of that from Washington for maintenance alone.

In 2009, it generated only $431,000 in revenue, less than a 4 percent return. Most public transit systems lose money, but by comparison JTA’s bus system made back more than 20 percent — $6.2 million — of its $30.2 million cost in 2009.

Grassroots activists are working overtime to stop “Albuquerque Rapid Transit,” and the Foundation wishes them well in their campaign against the boondoggle-in-the-making. But believe it or not, Albuquerque could do worse than ART. It could build a monorail.

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17 Replies to “A Monorail for Central? Really?”

  1. Transit X is developing a privately financed, carbon-free, on-demand, non-stop, mass transit system that provides commuting times 2 to 10 times faster than buses, cars, and trains. It is a personal suspended monorail system — unlike existing monorails. A test track and pilot is being planned for the Boston area. Here’s a composite video: https://vimeo.com/150442548

  2. Monorails are actually a great transportation solution and it’s being proven with recent extensive monorails systems in Daegu, South Korea and São Paulo, Brazil.

    Remember that back in 2005 when the effort for monorail expansion in Seattle was in it’s early stages; back then the people of Seattle voted many times in favor of monorail.

    So why didn’t Seattle citizens get the monorail they voted for? It’s because there seems to be a bureaucracy here in the United States that’s become very good at nixing monorail proposals and promoting conventional rail.

    Yet keep in mind that besides being more costly to the taxpayer, there’s constant proof when we watch the news that conventional rail isn’t safe since there are often occurrences of derailing and of having a fender bender with an automobile.

    1. Albuquerque is not Daegu. Albuquerque is not São Paulo. It has nowhere near that kind of population density.

      Once the reality of the cost of expanding Seattle’s monorail became apparent, the “yes” votes dried up — it’s been defeated two times in a row now, the first in 2005 and the second in 2014.

      Mike Bjork, an online commenter from Seattle, posted this in response to Macauley’s silly suggestion, and I think it’s spot-on:

      Our “relevant model” monorail project went bust over a decade ago and nothing was built after spending $125M. Costs for our 14-mile Green Line ballooned from $2 billion to $9 billion after “unanticipated construction expenses” arose (such as needing fire escapes and structurally-sound columns). Elevated structure and stations, like those necessitated by monorail technology, will cost in the hundreds-of-millions per mile range to construct. There’s no way around it; at all.

      1. Albuquerque has a greater population density than Wuppertal, Germany; their suspended monorail is the oldest monorail there is and it’s a great transit solution for their part of Germany.

        As for the cost, a person can look at many monorail systems and compare it to the Pan-American Freeway in Albquerque and tell by looking that the monorail should be less expensive to construct.

        Then as for the “reality of the cost” of expanding Seattle’s monorail is concerned, the truth is that the numbers were artifically inflated for the purpose of defeating the project, which it was able to do successfully, unfortunately.

        Dick Falkenbury, who spearheaded the Seattle Monorail project, does a good job of outlining how the costs were artificially inflated in his book “Rising Above It All”.

        As for the second attempt in 2014, Dick Falkenbury himself didn’t think it was a good plan (I hope this person himself will correct me if I’m not accurate, here). As with any other transit project, monorail also has to be done correctly in order for people to believe in it.

        As monorail transit goes forward in other parts of the world, hopefully someday we here in the USA will be able to see past the myths and the lies and implement monorail in many of the major transit corridors in this country.

        1. If anything, the estimates of the costs to expand Seattle’s monorail were too optimistic.

          The gutsy, voluminous work of Bent Flyvbjerg has exposed the horrific dishonesty of the “infrastructure” lobby. Projects consistently come in over budget and behind schedule, and fail to generate estimated revenue.

          Harry W. James, an engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center, put it well: “Deception occurs when the participants and stakeholders have different and conflicting interests and engage in political and strategic behavior, usually for economic advantage. Project advocates deliberately underestimate costs to increase the chance that their project will be chosen over its competitors. This defeats the project selection process, since the most deceptive rather than the most cost-beneficial projects can be selected. Strategic deception is encouraged by conflicting goals, asymmetric information, different risk preferences and time horizons, and unclear accountability.”

          1. Thanks for the link to Bent Flyvbjerg and his talk on Megaprojects. I haven’t been able to listen to all of it yet, but it seems like his point is that large projects are often overpriced and they underperform.

            I think something like this would be true for conventional rail systems; I’ve heard of light rail systems being built for a certain price tag (in order to get it approved), yet then there’s an announcement later that it would actually cost more. And who pays that extra money? It’s Mr Taxpayer, which is you and me.

            And then for a proposed transit system that’s different from conventional rail (a competing form of transportation), the lobby will overflate the price from the very beginning so it won’t get approved. After all, why introduce new ideas and innovation when they know how to make big money from the same kind of rail system?

            It’s my understanding that construction for monorail should be about the same as for monorail, yet when light rail is elevated, then it becomes much more expensive. The maintenance and operations of for after it’s been built is also expensive.

            Yet after a monorail is completely built, the price for running it are very low since the costs for operation and maintenance are very low. At times, it’s even possible for a monorail to be profitable from revenues collected at the fare box.

          2. What happened in Las Vegas? They have way higher density than Albuquerque and it hasn’t worked out as planned. The system also should have gone to the airport, but did not.

          3. Paul, the Vegas monorail is really interesting, and I’ve followed it pretty closely since the late 1990s, when I worked for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the Rio Grande Foundation’s “sister think tank” in the Silver State.

            The monorail was initially a modest link between two casino properties. A bunch of politically juiced Sin City insiders decided to expand it, and their nonprofit corporation won approval from the state to issue tax-free bonds.

            The “Las Vegas Monorail Company” filed for bankruptcy in 2010. (Some of us were surprised that it took that long.) Believe it or not, there wasn’t a taxpayer bailout, as many feared there would be, because the city and state were teetering on their own bankruptcies, given the horrific drop in tourist traffic to Vegas during the Great Recession.

            So the bondholders got screwed — a lawsuit by a hedge fund was filed, although I’m not sure of its status — but taxpayers dodged a bullet. The monorail emerged from bankruptcy a few years later, and it’s still operating today. The ridership numbers have improved with Vegas’s comeback, but the future is anyone’s guess. There’s talk of expansion to the airport. (As you note, it’s a major drawback.)

            The monorail really has been something of a unicorn — neither “public” nor private, and some of its revenue-generating strategies, such as corporate sponsorship of stations, weren’t bad ideas. Given that before it was expanded, there was strong lobbying for a government light-rail system (of course), Vegas could have done worse. (It might still.)

            As for a monorail on Central … the proposal would be funny, if it weren’t so pathetic. Just another lame-brained scheme by the ignorant for a “put us on the map” project. Zero potential for economic development, zero potential to be built on time and on budget, zero potential for significant farebox revenue. But hey, maybe if we can get a few billion more from the feds….

  3. I continue to marvel at the fascination with public transportation in New Mexico, mostly from people who have never used mass transit on a regular basis. I spent most of my life in Chicago and practically grew up on public transportation: rode streetcars as a kid, spent more time on the subway in college than in some of my classes, and commuted to work downtown for 20-plus years.

    I still take public transportation when I visit Chicago or New York because it’s faster and cheaper than driving. I have never used the bus here because I don’t have to: One of the joys of living in Albuquerque is driving anywhere in town in a matter of minutes and parking close to my destination. If I wanted to live in a walkable urban area with a mass transit system, I would have stayed in Chicago.

  4. I saw a monorail concept called the SkyTaxi that had 8 person pods continuously traveling on a loop to the most frequented areas. Since the tracks where supported by 25~35 foot towers, they had a small footprint. It looked more feasible then a full blown train like monorail.

    The visionaries envisioned air powered cars, besides bicycles, to take you to surrounding businesses that could be rented.

    The trend now seems for people to rent cars for commuting and even city to city travel. It might be a way to more efficient mass transit, if you can keep the rift raft out pass the progressives. Better than a Rail Runner it seems and no RR crossings needed.

  5. Keep with the hookah dreams, smokers.
    Fewer than 4% of commutes in the USA are by rail/bus/ped/cab, and 40% of that is in NYC.
    The fares should be readjusted every week to reflect the ridership and its requirement to pay at least 50% of the total system/maintenance cost. Try that one on the free train ride to the Santa Fe Puzzle Palace.
    Who will pay to place the grocery/home improvement/child care facilities and what-all else I need daily at the stops so I don’t have to go out in my car after work? How do I get from home to tower, tower to work, and back? Bus? Walk? Are there that many jobs/attractions/homes within a quarter mile of your towers? (A quarter mile is about 8-10 minutes walking time at average casual speed of 1.85 mph, and allowing for the interruptions at each 300′ block)
    Handy? No. Efficient? No. Attractive? No.

  6. Keep with the hookah dreams, smokers.
    Fewer than 4% of commutes in the USA are by rail/bus/ped/cab, and 40% of that is in NYC.
    The fares should be readjusted every week to reflect the ridership and its requirement to pay at least 50% of the total system/maintenance cost. Try that one on the free train ride to the Santa Fe Puzzle Palace.
    Who will pay to place the grocery/home improvement/child care facilities and what-all else I need daily at the stops so I don’t have to go out in my car after work? How do I get from home to tower, tower to work, and back? Bus? Walk? Are there that many jobs/attractions/homes within a quarter mile of your towers? (A quarter mile is about 8-10 minutes walking time at average casual speed of 1.85 mph, and allowing for the interruptions at each 300′ block). On uneven terrain? In inclement weather (Hotter than 80-85)?
    Handy? No. Efficient? No. Attractive? No. Avoidable? You bet!

  7. It’s unfortunate, yet there’s a lot of bias against monorail transit in our country.

    I’m not certain if a monorail would “put a city on the map”, yet for any major city (like Albuquerque) that builds a monorail that goes for a considerable distance through a major transit corridor, there would surely be a good amount of ridership. Also that city would have a transit system that’s truly unique as compared to others here in the USA.

    Would you happen to know the potential for fare box revenue from a conventional rail system? It’s my understanding that it always has to be taxpayer subsidized.

    But if a major monorail system were built (if you can get the feds or whoever to help out with financing it instead of a train car system that runs through the streets), then make sure everybody knows it’s there; just like you would for any other rail system. Then watch and see what the economic impact would be.

    And no matter what that economic impact is, a monorail will always do a much better job of what any transit system should. And that is to get people to their destination much more quickly (since it doesn’t get held up by surface traffic) and much more safely (since there’s much less chances of accidents with automobiles, pedestrians, etc.).

    1. Albuquerque is a “major city”? It doesn’t even make the list of the 50 biggest U.S. MSAs. I like living here — moved here by choice — but ABQ is hardly a “major city.”

      No bias against monorails on my part. If private investors want to launch a monorail project, I say go for it. The same for light rail, submarines, zeppelins, hyperloops, and space elevators.

      My bias is against faith-based, taxpayer-subsidized, and even “truly unique” systems that cost zillions, serve few “customers,” and require heavy “public investment.” The enormous opportunity cost of these trendy boondoggles is a real transportation tragedy. That funding could have been employed in so many more effective ways — exploring private bus/jitney services, widening/expanding highways, allowing for-profit firms to run and/or own and/or build toll roads, helping the working poor by expanding access to private vehicles, etc.

      Your intentions are good, Mr. Ziegler, but if I may be so bold, you’re woefully uninformed about the basics of transportation policy. Suggested reading: “Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What To Do About It,” by Randal O’Toole, and “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” by Ted Balaker and Sam Staley. Also, check out Wendell Cox’s exhaustive work on the high costs and dubious “benefits” of government transit.

      1. Thanks for the books on suggested reading, Mr. Muska. I’ll look at them, yet it may take me awhile.

        I have to admit, I don’t know a lot about transportation policy, yet I do know that instead of being a far flung idea, monorails are real and they do carry thousands of people to their destinations safely and without a problem; only most of it is in other countries besides ours. I’ve ridden on many of them before; it’s my opinion that they’re a lot of fun to ride.

        The number of monorails in the world is increasing even today. Some are being built right now, while others are in the planning stages.

        Here is a site that where future monorails developments can be checked up on:

        http://monorails.org/tMspages/News.html

        (I intended to add that as a hyperlink; it didn’t work out, thus I typed in the URL.)

        Anyway it talks about what monorails are under construction and also about proposed monorails. Monorails are slowly being accepted as a serious form of transit.

        I feel as if monorails can work in variety of metropolitan areas; perhaps even smaller than Albuquerque. Of course, I realize if it happens, it won’t be anytime soon from now. Yet if it were sooner than later, then that would be really awesome.

        1. Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out. Monorails are pretty neat, as a concept.

          Unfortunately, “I feel” and “my opinion” and “fun” don’t cut it in public-policy analysis. We — at least, those of us attempting to make credible arguments — employ data, statistics, etc. That’s how rational, accountable policy is made.

          “Wouldn’t it be nice” was fine for the Beach Boys. It doesn’t cut the mustard with taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Government transit, in all its forms, is one of the biggest boondoggles on the “public” sector’s long list of staggeringly colossal failures. It’s driven by greedy unions, selfish developers, and brain-dead civic boosterism (chambers of commerce, local media, professional pols, “community groups”) — not a desire to provide travelers with speedy and safe transportation. The U.S. does not have the population density to make transit workable. We value our mobility, and are not willing to give it up in favor of fixed-guideway systems, no matter how many rails they have. It’s been true for decades, and there are no indications that anything will change anytime soon.

          No better example of the transit malignancy exists than “Albuquerque Rapid Transit.” Proponents can’t marshal a single plausible justification for the hundreds of millions of dollars that will likely be spent. (Billions, probably, if the system is to be expanded.) Those of us in opposition have shot battleship-sized holes in the proposal, but with the mayor’s (and the city council’s) dunderheaded support and “free” money from Washington, the project moves forward. Pro-ART officials and activists and lobbyists tout phantom benefits and ignore all-but-certain unintended consequences. It’s an avoidable disaster, but at this point, it looks like a done deal.

          It’s nice that you like monorails. Here’s something I like: golden retrievers. (My eight-week-old pup arrives one month from today.) But government mandating that all, or most, U.S. households have golden retrievers would be very poor policy. Subsidies for golden owners would be less damaging, but still undesirable.

          Another blast from the past: You can’t always get what you want. Resources are limited, and in a nation where the local, state, and federal levels of government are dangerously close to insolvency, transit is unaffordable. Not only should new systems not be built, but many existing systems should be scrapped — replaced with market-oriented, technology-enabled alternatives that more realistically reflect how Americans move around.

  8. The bottom line is that mass transit succeeds only when it is competitive with private autos in convenience and cost. That’s why mass transit systems are popular in large, dense cities and a failure in smaller cities.

    Unfortunately, government management makes transit systems less competitive. When the Rail Runner opened, its travel time to Santa Fe was about the same as driving. Then the bureaucrats added stations to give people in remote areas “access” and the travel time nearly doubled. Now nobody uses the Rail Runner except government employees with time on their hands.

    ART will follow the same pattern. We already have one city councilor demanding an added station in his district. More stops are certain to follow and travel times inevitably will increase.

    It’s likely that autos will remain the preferred mode of transportation for people who value speed and convenience — many of whom will make new entertainment and dining choices to avoid Central ave.

    ART may attract a small following of faddish urbanites, but is more likely to be the ride of last resort for students, the ignition-interlock set and the homeless.

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