Thursday, January 19, 2012

How the Tappan Zee Bridge hurts existing transit

It's become the standard position for environmentalists, transit advocates and anyone else who opposes the Governor's heavy-handed revision of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement plans: "the new bridge must include transit" (PDF). Most of the people who disagree argue that the bridge should be built right away. Besides myself, at this point only a few, like the Hudson Riverkeeper and Alfred Strasser, say that a replacement bridge may not be the best choice. I think I've convinced Alon Levy too now.

The interesting thing about transit in Bergen, Orange and Rockland counties is that the services that go through the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane to the Port Authority in Manhattan actually earn back almost all their operating costs in fares. In contrast, all the local services - many of them operated by the same companies under contract - require heavy operating support from the Federal, state and local governments.

This can be easily explained using the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

Getting through the Lincoln Tunnel or across the George Washington Bridge by private car is slow and expensive. The XBL and the Port Authority Bus Terminal allow the buses to cut through this, giving them an advantage to compensate for their multiple stops, fixed routes and sometimes inconvenient schedules. Local roads offer no such advantage, so people use their cars whenever they can.

Given this, it is no surprise that buses across the Tappan Zee Bridge (also contracted out to Stagecoach subsidiaries) earn back only ten percent of their operating costs, with the remaining amount paid by the State DOT. I just found a fascinating report (PDF) done by the State DOT in 2005 on transit in Rockland that sheds some light on just how the Magic Formula leads to profitability. The table on page III-54 in particular deserves to be excerpted here:

ServiceTappanzee ExpressCommuter BusFixed Route TOR
WhereTappan Zee Bridge Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington BridgeLocal Rockland service
Operating Expense / Rev. Vehicle Mile$ 5.73$ 5.04$ 5.09
Rev. Passengers / Rev. Vehicle Mile0.570.481.28
Operating Expense / Revenue Passenger$10.04$10.39$ 3.96
Total Op. Revenue / Revenue Passenger$ 0.98$ 8.18$ 0.78

The Tappan Zee Express and the "Commuter Bus" have a lot in common. Both bring commuters from Rockland County to work run using intercity coaches operated by subsidiaries of the Stagecoach Group, at a cost of about five dollars per mile or ten dollars per passenger, and they both carry about half a commuter per mile. The difference is that when Stagecoach operates under contract as the Tappan Zee Express, they only earn an average of 98 cents per passenger. When they operate through the Lincoln Tunnel as Short Line or Red and Tan, they can charge an average of $8.18 per passenger.

Stagecoach can charge that much because people who want to get to Manhattan will pay it. The Tappan Zee Express fare may be set by contract, but if they thought they could make more they'd have cancelled the contract and run service across the bridge without it. It's simple supply and demand: there are enough people willing to pay $7.40 to go from Nanuet to the Port Authority to make it worthwhile, but there aren't enough willing to pay that much to go from Nanuet to White Plains.

People don't want to pay that much for the bus across the Tappan Zee Bridge because it doesn't give them much of an advantage over driving. Or in State DOT-speak, "Operating revenue for this service is impacted by challenging suburban auto-oriented market as well as the low fare structure in contrast to other commuting express services using Over-the-Road Coaches."

But we've got all these commuters who ride buses to Manhattan. Why don't the local buses make any money? They're also operated by Stagecoach and cost about the same per vehicle mile. They get more passengers per vehicle mile, so their expenses per passenger are lower, but they can only charge 78 cents a ride on average. There aren't enough passengers to bring the expenses per passengers down below that amount, and there's not enough demand for them to raise the prices to cover the expenses.

Demand for these local buses is low because the State DOT, Rockland County and the municipal governments have spent the past sixty years building stroads and parking and prohibiting dense mixed-use development - in other words making it easy for these bus commuters to make all their local trips by car and depriving the local buses of their advantages for anyone who owns a car.

Now the Tri-State Transportation Campaign is pushing hard for "BRT on the bridge" (PDF). How would the "BRT" envisioned by Tri-State work under the Magic Formula? It would have its own right-of-way (or close enough if the State tweaks the HO/T parameters properly, which is a big "if" in itself), and if the State doubles the bridge tolls as planned, but the State would make it easier to use cars by widening the bridge. There are other factors like the price of gas, but chances are that any ridership boost will not be enough to make the service self-supporting like the Lincoln Tunnel services, meaning that if the State cries poverty and cuts the subsidy, the bus service would simply vanish, either immediately or after a brief transit death spiral.

Similarly, local bus service is hampered by stroads, parking and sprawl, which are all mandated by local ordinances. The "BRT" envisioned by Tri-State would not help any of this, because it would be sprawl transit, taking commuters from highway park-and-ride to office park and not focusing on walkable downtowns.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is bad for transit, and "BRT on the bridge" would not be any better. If you really care about transit, about walkable downtowns, about preserving open space, about conserving resources and about curbing pollution and carnage, there's only one solution that makes any sense: tear it down and don't replace it.

If you'd like to gently suggest that the Tri-State Transportation Campaign stop promoting "BRT on the Bridge," you can email them at You can also blog, tweet, or leave comments on their blog or Facebook page.

1 comment:

George K said...

Wait, if the cost for the commuter bus is $10.39, but they only make back $8.18, aren't they still losing money? And also, if the cost per passenger revenue mile is $5 per passenger, how is the total cost around $10? Wouldn't that mean that the average passenger only rides for 2 miles?