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Transit systems with too many riders? No, it's not a joke. Some of the newest light rail transit (LRT) systems have been overflowing with riders – almost too many to accommodate – and Denver's new LRT system, run by the city's Regional Transit District (RTD), is just one of them.
in Denver, the avalanche of new riders is so overwhelming that the Denver Business Journal of January 26, 2001 was led to offer consolation in the form of a story titled "RTD not alone in ridership problems", which assured Denver readers that "Dallas, St. Louis, Salt Lake City also experiencing growing pains with light rail".
Cathy Proctor, a staff reporter for the Business Journal, reported that "Packed light-rail cars, overflowing parking lots and passengers left behind on station platforms aren't unique to the Regional Transportation District's new Southwest light-rail line." On the contrary, she assured readers, "They are scenes repeated around the country as people flock to new rail transit lines in numbers far beyond initial projections."
Say what? Haven't the anti-rail zealots, with Wendell Cox and Thomas Rubin at the head of the pack, been cautioning for years that new LRT startups always overestimate ridership and never achieve their projected ridership levels?
Riders Cramming into LRT
Incredibly, it turns out that LRT has a "problem", all right – trying to provide enough service for the crowds of eager passengers who want to ride the trains! "Like Denver, transit agencies in Dallas, Salt Lake City and St. Louis all have endured problems associated with the openings of new, wildly popular rail lines that are drawing people who never considered taking the bus" reports the paper.
Proctor quotes Mick Crandall, program director for Utah's Wasatch Front Regional Council, described as "Salt Lake City's equivalent of the Denver Regional Council of Governments": "i don't think we had any sense of how people would react to the rail line" Crandall told the reporter.
Proctor elaborates on the "problem":
Salt Lake City's new 15-mile light-rail line opened in December 1999 and is carrying an average of 20,000 people on weekdays – 43 percent above projections, a transit agency spokesman said.
RTD's new Southwest rail line is carrying up to 14,000 people on weekdays 66 percent above the original projections of 8,400.
in Dallas, ridership on one popular new rail line missed projections by 30 percent.
in St. Louis, ridership on the 7-year-old system was 14 percent over projections for the year 2000, a spokesman said.
in Denver, parking is difficult to find at certain stations and complaints have rolled in about crammed trains and cars haphazardly parked on private property adjacent to the stations, stories that are repeated around the country.
RTD is scrambling to add parking lots, including a proposal for a multi-level garage at the Mineral Avenue station with the City of Littleton, and is waiting for 12 light-rail cars, at a cost of up to $30 million, to be delivered this year to ease the crowding.
Who's to Blame for Whopping Success?
As Proctor reports, the recriminations are flying – not over who's responsible for a dismal failure, but over whom to blame for unbridled success: "RTD blames ridership underprojection on outdated population figures from DRCOG and rigid rules handed down from the Federal Transit Authority, which paid a significant portion of the light rail line."
Proctor quotes Bill Van Meter, RTD's manager of systems planning, who told her that "We were just coming out of the '80s recession" when the population figures used for the Southwest line were run. Van Meter went on to lament that "DRCOG was conservative and just wrong on what they projected."
Accordingly, population and employment statistics "are being refigured to account for new information from the 2000 census", according to Jeff Romine, a regional economist with DRCOG.
Ridership projections for the Southeast light rail line "will probably be closer on target," Romine told Proctor.
Forecast Models Unrealistic Toward LRT
As Proctor notes, RTD's Southeast LRT line, running from interstate 25 and Broadway southward along the highway to Lincoln Avenue with a spur along i-225 to Parker Road, "is expected to open in seven years." She reports that "Construction on the $1.7 billion joint highway and light-rail project is scheduled to begin this summer ."
"The other half of the problem" according to Proctor, "stems from rules dictated by the FTA about which factors, such as fare cost and travel time, can be used to project light rail ridership, say transit agency officials around the nation."
Now, curiously, at the core of the dispute over who underpredicted ridership is something that LRT supporters, like Light Rail Progress, have been complaining about for many, many years: Ridership-forecasting modelling procedures mandated by the Federal Transit Administration unrealistically expect public behavior to be the same whether they're offered LRT or just a bus. As Proctor elaborates:
"The federal government wants us to use these models to compare various projects, like light rail and bus lines, the same way," said Doug Allen, vice president of planning and development for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency.
The problem is that people like light rail a lot more than they like buses -- a fact the federal rules don't take into account, say transit agency officials.
Local FTA officials said the agency was working on the problem and referred questions to the Washington, D.C., communications office, which didn't return repeated calls for comment made over two weeks.
"How people respond to rail is different than how they respond to bus," said Utah's Crandall.
"There's a dependability on travel time with rail that there isn't with buses. it has its own tracks and you know where it goes," he said.
RTD's survey of riders on the Southwest line found nearly 60 percent of those who hadn't used RTD's bus system now jump on light rail three times a week.
in Dallas, ridership on a new rail line was three times greater than ridership on an express bus that used the same route, Allen said.
RTD, DRCOG and the Colorado Department of Transportation just started work on a new computer projection model that takes these factors into account, Van Meter said.
"The FTA recognizes that we're not predicting ridership well," Van Meter said. "if we can improve the model, make better projections and prove that it works, they'll be very happy."
Holy Moly – are they finally figuring out, at long last, that the officially approved models really are out of kilter, that people really do prefer rail service over bus (even if everything else is "equal"), and ... they really do intend to adjust forecasting models?
Will wonders never cease.