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Advocates for buses

Date: 9/1/2010

There has been much discussion about rail service recently, with some advocating high-speed rail service in the region similar to the high-speed rail systems in Europe and Asia. The services there are usually fast and efficient, with premium services and premium fares. They operate in protected dedicated rail corridors without grade crossings between major cities at speeds over 125 MPH and even up to 200 MPH, offering alternatives to air travel.

In the Pioneer Valley, the current study by the Connecticut Department of Transportation for commuter rail service between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield (NHHS) should not be confused with high-speed rail service the trip would take 80 minutes, more time than driving or the bus. The trip includes 50+ grade crossings, each one stopping traffic on local roads when a train passes, and causing a loud train horn blast over 2,000 times a day!

Good public policy for major transportation investments should include an "alternative analysis" studying a broad range of alternatives for a project, resulting in the most efficient and effective, environmentally-friendly, and cost-effective solution. The rail study conducted was not a balanced multi-modal transportation study and alternative analysis for the corridor; rather, it focused only on rail. If all of the facts were on the table, people would learn that motorcoach service offers the cleanest, greenest and far more cost-effective alternative.

According to studies by international consulting firm Nathan Associates, motorcoaches offer the most Passenger Miles Per Gallon (PMPG) of fuel used by far than any other mode better than trains, planes or automobiles. Motorcoaches average over 200 PMPG, and a full 54-passenger bus can get over 300 PMPG. A Prius hybrid with four passengers gets about 200 PMPG, while commuter rail services average only 86 PMPG.

Today's buses using ultra low sulfur fuel, electronically-controlled clean diesel engines, particulate filters, and oxidation catalysts, are three times more efficient in reducing CO2 output compared to commuter rail.

Diesel locomotives are allowed by Environmental Protection Agency regulation to idle for 30 minutes, and up to two hours in some cases. Buses are limited to three minutes of idle time, minimizing emissions and neighborhood impacts.

Given the difficult financial condition of state finances in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the daily reports of crumbling roads and bridges, and constricted budgets for local transit services of Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and CT Transit, most troubling is the costs to construct and operate the train service.

The construction cost for "start-up" initial service is now estimated at almost $500 million, which does not include any rolling stock or include other expensive components such as rebuilding the Connecticut River rail bridge or Hartford viaduct.

When these parts of the project are included, the final rail startup costs will likely be over $1 billion. While there could be a subsidy for some construction from the federal government and federal taxpayers, there is no federal subsidy for rail operating deficits. The Connecticut DOT study projects riders would pay only 11 percent of the operating costs through fares 89 percent of the costs would have to be subsidized by state taxpayers. The passenger fare recovery compares poorly with other rail systems around the country even the highly-subsidized Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority gets 40 percent from fares and for the Metro North rail services over 50 percent.

The studies estimate the commuter rail service would require almost $9 million/year subsidy, over what the customers pay in fares, year after year. Some estimates expect up to half of the rail riders will come from existing Amtrak and bus services in the corridor, meaning only about 600 new transit riders will use the service daily. The potential construction cost of $1 billion will be $1.6 million per new rider, and each individual new rider would need a state taxpayer subsidy of $15,000 per year, every year.

New ways to think about improving transportation should be broader than just rail, where tracks laid down 100 years ago are not necessarily where people live and work today. Our neighboring state of New Hampshire took a different approach from rail service, by instituting a form of "Bus Rapid Transit" for their I-93 corridor. A series of park and ride lots and passenger terminals were built, served by frequent bus schedules, with priority roadway lane reservations.

New motorcoaches and passenger amenities have attracted significant new ridership, and reduced road congestion at a fraction of the cost of rail. Should we not at least consider and analyze such an option for the I-91 corridor?

Other ways to promote and target economic development in the region, such as one-time government subsidies for business relocation and tax incentives, could attract significant new business and jobs to our region.

Michael Sharff

Peter Pan Bus Lines