Apr 07 2014

Sunday Train: Koch Brothers Aim to Screw Tennessee Transit Riders & Motorists

(4 PM – promoted by TheMomCat)

In a move to squash the freedom and local political autonomy of Nashville residents, the Koch Brothers-finded Americans For Prosperity turn out to be supporting a proposed State of Tennessee law outlawing Bus Rapid Transit systems that have dedicated lanes. From ThinkProgress:

On Thursday, the Tennessee Senate passed SB 2243, which includes an amendment that “prohibits metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government from constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway.” The amendment is aimed at Nashville’s proposed $174 million rapid bus system called the Amp, but would apply to any mass transit system proposed in Nashville.

The Amp, a proposed 7.1-mile bus rapid transit system that would cut commute times along one of Nashville’s major corridors, has been staunchly opposed by the Tennessee branch of Americans for Prosperity, a lobbying organization founded in part by the Koch brothers. AFP’s Tennessee director told the Tennessean that SB 2243 was the result of a conversation he’d had with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Tracy. In addition, AFP pushed the Senate to vote on the bill – efforts that led to StopAmp.org, one of the lead groups opposing the Amp, thanking AFP in a press release after SB 2243 passed the Senate. The transit system’s opponents say it would create traffic problems and safety issues due to its middle-lane location, a claim that a spokesman for the Amp Coalition disputes.

One thing we know is that the claim of traffic problems and safety issues from a middle lane location is a red herring ~ not because its patent nonsense, though it is, but because that’s not what the bill restricts. The bill does not ban center lane Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or side lane BRT, it bans effective BRT. If passed by the House and signed into law, it requires that any BRT system run exclusively in mixed traffic … which means that its not likely to be a BRT at all, but would be, instead, a new coat of paint on city buses and some improved facilities at some city bus stops.

So more on why the Koch Brothers are against Tennesseans having effective BRT and so also against improved traffic conditions in Tennessee cities, below the fold.

Basics of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)

The first major experiments with Bus Rapid Transit took place in Curitiba, Brazil. The fundamental Curitiba model takes three city streets and makes the central one into a two way bus-only street, so there is no delays from interference by cars along the road. To that is added bus-priority at intersections between car-streets and bus-streets and measures to improve the speed of bus loading and unloading, such as bus “stations” with controlled access for ticket holders, so the bus can unload and then load from both front and rear doors without the bus driver having to either sell or check the tickets of boarding passengers.

US BRT systems do not involve this kind of wholesale shift of street lanes from car use to exclusive bus use. Rather, the high end US BRT systems, like Cleveland “Healthline” or LA’s Orange Line (video), involve one or a few dedicated bus corridors, stations with off-bus ticket sales, and bus priority at signals. As noted in the LA Orange Line video, bus priority can also upgraded for buses that are running behind schedule time, to help them catch up on their schedule.

Both the Cleveland Healthline BRT and LA Orange Line BRT were on corridors that were originally considered for dedicated light rail corridors.

The choice of mode often generate quite ferocious debate among advocates of different modes of local transit. Light rail has similar transit speed to BRT but a higher peak capacity than BRT, electrification of light rail is less expensive than trolleybus electrification of a BRT corridor, and light rail is often considered to have a more comfortable ride. On the other hand, a larger share of the capital cost of a light rail system is up front, so there are cases where it is possible to obtain sufficient funding for a BRT corridor where it is not possible to fund light rail on that same corridor. In some cases, though this can vary from state to state, more of the costs of the BRT system can be passed off onto the existing hidden subsidies for road transport, disguising some of the full economic cost of the system, and in those cases the financing is tilted even more heavily to BRT.

And as discussed a few weeks ago in the Sunday Train, “four key ingredients” to successful Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD), based on examining five US leaders in TOD, are:

  • Connect dense employment centers
  • Regional collaboration
  • Proactive planning and public policies to encourage TOD
  • Public-private partnerships for joint development

By contrast, the TOD impacts of improved local transit tend to be fairly technology neutral, so examples of successful TOD do not tend to support statements along the line of “heavy rail mass transit / light rail transit / BRT / Streetcars / Trolleybuses are the silver bullet technology for promoting TOD”.

However, while the TOD tends to be technology neutral, when the available option is BRT, it is not to whether or not the BRT has access to dedicated corridors. What matters for connecting dense employment centers is not geographic distance, but transit time. For a given employment center and given degree of inconvenience for driving into that employment center, origin stations that offer trips that are half an hour or less to the employment center have the best performance as centers for residential TOD. And untangling buses from auto traffic is the single most effective means of increasing the half-hour radius.

Consider the example from the Orange Line video, where a trip of over 80 minutes was brought down to about 50 minutes. Now consider the route between two employment centers where the regular city bus trip is 80 minutes. That means that 25% of the route is more than half an hour away from either end, less than 40% of the stops along that bus route will be within half an hour of each end, and none will be within half an hour of both ends. Cut 30 minutes off that route, primarily by giving the bus a dedicated busway, but also by shifting to level boarding and off-bus ticketing. Now 60% of the stations are within half an hour of each end, and most of what was a “dead zone” more than half an hour from either end has become a “golden zone” that is within half an hour of both ends.


Why Do The Koch Brothers Hate Our Freedom and Free Enterprise?

When considering the Transit Oriented Development opportunities that can be generated by an effective BRT system, and the importance of a dedicated busway for an effective BRT system, the Tennessee Senate law banning dedicated BRT lanes is clearly sabotaging opportunities for Transit Oriented Development. They are, indeed, an example of “big (state) government” imposing “burdensome regulations” to interfere with “private enterprise”, in particular private enterprise that is looking to make money in real estate development in the face of fading opportunities for private profit in sprawl property development.

So, why do the Koch Brothers hate our freedom, and why are they OK with regular city buses but opposed to BRT?

Well, they don’t say. In public, instead of giving their real reasons, what they offer are red herrings. An effective busway system diverts people from driving cars to taking buses, and since people driving cars kills a lot more people per passenger mile than people riding buses, an effective busway saves lives. So any sabotage of busway design on safety grounds is a lie.

Indeed, the law itself tells us that the safety lie is a red herring, since the law does not seek to ban some specific type of busway, it seeks to ban any dedicated lane busway. The busway could, indeed, be built into a fully grade separated former railway, and the law would still ban it.

What the law actually seeks to ban is effective bus service. More effective bus service would offer some people more choice … and since a large number of the new riders on a more effective bus service would come from former motorists, it benefits:

  • current bus riders, who gain a faster bus trip;
  • the current motorists who switch, since they switch because its served their needs better; and,
  • the current motorists who continue to drive, who now face competition from fewer motorists for use of the road and, of particular importance in larger employment centers, parking.

In most of Tennessee, this means it basically benefits everybody. Its a Win-Win-Win … for the people of Tennessee.

But its not a win for the Koch Brothers, because the Koch Brothers make a lot of their billions from Oil, and a more effective bus system conserves oil use.

This also gets to why they are only interested in crippling bus systems, and do not seem to be focused on killing them outright. An ineffective bus system is an excellent customer for a petroleum refiner. An ineffective bus system has very low load factors on average. That is because except during the peak commute period, few people want to take it, and therefore few services can run off-peak, and some marginal routes cannot be run, and therefore it becomes unusable by some of the people who would take it if they could, pushing ridership down even more.

And the lower the ridership, the more car-addicted businesess are, for both employees and customers, and so the more they have to invest in parking .. and the more that businesses have to invest in parking, the more convenient it is to develop in sprawling suburban locations, which are harder for buses to serve.

Atrocious bus service with limited service areas meeting only a fraction of the needs of the blind, mobility limited and poor … those bus services are fine customers for oil refiners.

However, suppose you improve service, and the result is improved ridership. Say you get up to five minutes between buses in peak hour, ten minutes between buses in off peak, fifteen minutes between buses in very early and vary late hours (for instance, the LA Orange Line runs from around 3:30 AM to about 1AM, where by contrast the buses in my county run 6:30AM to 10PM, and so stop running at the same time I stop teaching when I have an evening class) . Why, at that peak frequency, you can cut down available capacity by 2/3 for late, late buses, and still have a bus every fifteen minutes and, with priority traffic lights, stick to that schedule much better than a regular city bus. And with at least one bus every ten minutes through the day between the morning and evening peak and early evening hours, you don’t really need a schedule unless you are catching the bus to make an appointment … at ten minute frequencies, when you are going home, you can just go to the bus station and catch the next bus.

And so you start out with better load factors, because of the improved transit speed to destinations, and then that builds up frequency, and then that gives better load factors, because the improved frequency makes catching the bus more appealing, and that builds up frequency even more … and you get to a level of operation where your skeleton service is better frequency than the peak hour services in many suburban areas.

Which just kills the appeal of the bus to the owners of Petroleum Refineries. The thing is, bus fuel efficiencies per seat mile are quite good. What kills fuel efficiency per passenger mile is low load factors. Get the load factors up, and per vehicle fuel consumption rises only marginally, while per passenger fuel consumption plummets.

And there is an even bigger risk … a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. The capital costs and maintenance costs of the electrical supply system for electric trolley buses have led many systems to abandon what used to be, before WWII, a fairly common type of bus system. However, modern battery-trolley buses have been developed in Europe so that a trolley bus could run collector routes out beyond the reach of the trolleywire network. And when you look at a diesel-powered BRT system, you can electrify that system with a much smaller capital investment than previously, by putting up stretches of trolley wire in the section containing a bus station, and running off the battery in the areas in between.

An even worse, once you have electrified the BRT corridor, you can start incrementally expanding the trolley bus system by running buses from the dedicated busway onto the regular road network, with limited stretches of overhead supply at the main bus stops, so that the bus can both recharge while stopped and avoid draining the battery to accelerate from the stop. So the BRT corridor offers a place that can be electrified on a stand-alone basis, but also act as foundation for a larger electrified bus route network.

So if there are too many diesel or methane powered BRT corridors built in various cities in this country, offering too many local residents too much freedom from driving, there is a risk that the next wave of oil price shocks could provoke a wave of electrification as a reaction, and give those residents freedom from oil-fired transport altogether.

Now, I am sure that there has been some “freedom” rhetoric spilled in support of this effort to quash the freedom of Nashville residents to build a more effective bus service. But it is clear that the ultimate target is the same as private prisons with state guarantees of convicting enough people to full the prisons up, and private military contractors with bought and paid for Senators and Congresscritters who always support fighting somebody and never support abandoning any long obsolete overseas military base.

Its just the Great American Suck-Up Economy. The safest, surest way to profit in the Great American Suck Up Economy is to either have the government force people to pay, or to prevent government from freeing people from paying. The Koch Brothers do not want people to have freedom of choice in transport, if that freedom of choice means that they may use less petroleum or even, horror of horrors, no petroleum at all to get to work, store, school, church, movie theatre or anywhere else.


Conclusions and Considerations

As always, any topic in sustainable transport is on-topic in the Sunday Train. So feel free to talk about CO2 emissions reduction, energy independence, suburban retrofit and reversing the cancer of sprawl over our diverse ecosystems, or the latest iPhone or Android app to map you bike ride. Whatever.

And on this particular topic, what local transit system would you most like to have the freedom to use?

The Sunday Train doesn’t really leave the station until you jump in and join the conversation so … All Aboard!

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