Can We Really Blame ADA For High Transit Costs?

Via Bacon’s Rebellion, we find this article from William Lind at The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. The basic argument is that Andres Duany’s principles of “Lean Urbanism” can be applied to thinking about public transit as well as urban design and architecture, and that excessive government regulation is holding back the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of America’s public transit systems. As a longtime reader of Alon Levy, Stephen Smith, and the like, I’m quite sympathetic to this view despite (or, I would argue, because of) my own progressive views. Sadly, though, Lind doesn’t examine the writing that’s built up on this topic, which may just lead him into an intellectual trap.

Lind spends part of his piece arguing against things like excessively cautious Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations, outdated union work rules, and excessive environmental review–all of which are criticisms I’m sympathetic to within the context of progressive transportation policy. He also , somewhat oddly, claims that we should be using historic streetcars rather than modern transit vehicles to move people. The most remarkable part of the piece, though, is this nugget:

One of the regulatory burdens Duany referenced was ADA, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.  According to Bacon, “the last building he designed was so festooned with regulations, he (Duany) said he had to hire a consultant who specialized in handicap-accessibility code.  That one set of requirements contains as many rules and specifications as the entire development code when he got started!”

Here we begin to see a tie-in with transit.  ADA has proven the single most expensive, least useful mandate ever leveled on public transit.  Serving a small number of disabled people takes a large chunk of transit systems’ budgets, both capital and operating.   Many of the special facilities ADA demands of transit systems are seldom if ever used.  If something intended to serve the disabled is frequently used, including by people who are not disabled but nonetheless find it helpful, I’m all for it.  But millions have been spent entirely uselessly.

Aside from Lind’s seemingly coldhearted attitude toward the mobility needs of the disabled, are ADA requirements really a key driver of excessive costs in the transit world? Let’s review the work of the writers who I already complained about Lind not citing.

It’s useful to separate out infrastructure/capital and operating costs. For a summary of the former, we turn to Let’s Go LA’s useful round-up of work on the topic.  The topic headings (headings original, commentary mine unless otherwise noted) in that post are:

Lawyer Up


Lack of Agency In-House Talent

To quote directly:

The problem is that most agencies now have little in-house talent, so they may not know if their consultants are doing a good job or not. This is true from the bottom, where agency engineering positions pay less than outside consulting and consequently make it difficult to retain talented people, to the middle, where agency PMs are likewise paid too little, to the top, where some agencies are run by political appointees who don’t know enough about transportation.

Consultants Checking Consultants Checking. . .

You get the idea. Without knowledgeable leaders at the top, consultants are the ones in charge, which is a problem because of…

Consultant Conflicts of Interest

This is a biggie. The incentives presented to consultants don’t always correspond to the best interests of the contracting agency or the public trust. There’s a lot of collusion between consulting firms and a lot of hopping back and forth between private-sector firms and their public sector employers. It all adds up to a lot of grey areas…at best.

Consultant Liability

Government can get sued, so can consultants it hires.

Interagency Graft

Sometimes public agencies demand exorbitant things in order for another agency to be able to use their territory.

Intra-agency Graft

Different departments within agencies make sketchy shifting-around of resources easier.

Preemptive Mitigation

We spend lots of money to preempt lawsuits. Sensing a theme?

Legally Mandated Mitigation

We spend more than other countries do on making sure people’s lives change around transit projects as little as possible.

Union Rules

See above.

Crappy Transit Activism

Primarily refers to this Pedestrian Observations post.

Coattail Riding

Politicians like to add on all kinds of ancillary things to transit projects.

That’s right…I don’t see ADA there anywhere. Nor do the costs of ADA compliance show up in Stephen J. Smith’s definitive series on the topic. ADA elevators (required in all new subway and elevated train stations) are expensive, but in the general constellation of waste and excess that characterizes American transportation capital and infrastructure projects ADA costs would seem to be small fry.

Turning to operating costs, however, we find that Lind may have a point after all. The woes of paratransit services, the flexibly-scheduled, door-to-door operations that ADA requires transit agencies to operate in order to serve disabled people within their service areas, are well-documented. Paratransit is both hard to use for the consumer, generally requiring scheduling well in advance, and massively expensive for the transit agency. A 2008 Transportation Review Board report found that “Although paratransit ridership is still a small portion of the whole, slightly more than 1%, in 2004, paratransit comprised 9% of transit operating costs (Public Transportation Fact Book 2006). The operating cost per trip for paratransit service was $22.14; for all other modes, the operating cost per trip was $2.75 (per trip costs calculated from APTA data).” In some cities, paratransit trips can cost the agency up to $30 per ride.  And while agencies charge slightly higher fares for paratransit, the fares fall even farther short of covering operating costs than typical transit fares (say, by a factor of 10).

Paratransit, of course, is at the core a societal, ethical dilemma rather than an economic one. Simply put, enabling mobility for disabled people is an expensive proposition. When that means folding certain requirements into the cost of infrastructure projects, the cost is minimal relative to other expenses, and thus ADA infrastructure requirements probably shouldn’t be controversial. Paratransit, though, is a much more complicated question. When a transit agency has to spend nearly a tenth of its budget on only 1% of its passengers, serving those passengers takes away from the agency’s ability to serve other passengers, including those who have non-mobility-related disabilities. It’s a situation where two “progressive” goals–mobility for the disabled and giving population-wide transportation options–have been put fundamentally at conflict by well-meaning liberal policies.

Here, then, Lind has done well to expose an unintended consequences of government regulation. The question of what to do about the situation (which is of little interest to Lind–he’d presumably just cut ADA paratransit requirements), though, remains unresolved. I’d suggest that it’s high time for budgetary responsibility for paratransit to be transferred from transit agencies to another division of government (health?) Transit agencies could continue to operate the services on contract. That might not cut down on waste overall, but it would likely allow transit agencies to allocate their own resources more efficiently.  Then again, I know little about paratransit budgeting, and I’d be happy for someone who knows more to enlighten me.

But back to Lind. He holds up ADA as a primary example of the waste induced by overzealous government regulation of transportation, both in capital and operating budgets. ADA paratransit requirements are certainly very expensive, but that waste isn’t a product of inefficiency per se; rather, it’s a product of a conflict of societal values. And it’s worth remembering that when it comes to infrastructure costs,  ADA shows up nowhere in actual analysis of why American transit projects are so expensive. It seems that, while hitting (almost unintentionally) a few truths, Lind chose a primarily symbolic target for his wrath about inefficiency, a canard that stood in the way of deeper analysis.

Why is Lind so interested in targeting ADA? Perhaps the primacy of the failures of the private contracting process among  actual explanations of excessive  transit costs makes deeper analysis too uncomfortable for Lind and other conservatives to confront. Admitting that pushing most of the design-and-build process from the public to the private sector is in fact wasteful rather than efficient goes against everything that American conservatism tends to stand for in 2014. It’s an empirical illustration of the failures of private markets and privatization of government functions to provide what government can do more efficiently. That’s not to say that market- or efficiency- minded reforms have no role in transportation policy. Indeed, the tragedy of a piece like Lind’s is that there are many, many such reforms that are needed, but he chooses to spend some of his time in an attack on ADA  that seriously lacks nuance rather than confronting his own movement’s partial culpability in skyrocketing costs. We need quality conservative voices in the movement for progressive transportation policy, in no small part because there are many liberal policies that have proven to have more problems than answers. But if conservatives are going to engage in lecturing liberals about self-awareness and introspection, then they’d better prove that they’re capable of those things too.


11 thoughts on “Can We Really Blame ADA For High Transit Costs?

  1. Often, the lack of ADA compliance is a serious indicator of incompetence, for example the lack of level boarding on many commuter trains. You’d also expect that subways would have level boarding, and hence full accessibility at every station that’s equipped with elevators, but no, at the MTA, the platform-train gaps are unpredictable, and sometimes the vertical gaps are so large that wheelchairs get stuck. SkyTrain has none of that, and manages to run an operation with gaps that are in compliance with the ADA (no clue about the Canadian equivalent).

    • Skytrain was also built much more recently than the NYC subway. You can’t really blame the MTA today for decisions made a century ago that are now seen as “incompetent”, like not building elevators to subway stations, or putting a subway station on a track curve so the gap is too big. The ADA is a major reason why aging stations cannot be cheaply renovated (i.e. to standardize the platform height), because renovation implies ADA compliance, so no renovation can be cheaper than the cost of retrofitting an elevator into an old station.

  2. On the capital side, ADA is a bigger issue for legacy systems than new systems. On a new LRT or BRT line, if you’re reasonably competent, you’re going to design the thing with level boarding for all doors, and you’re going to have an elevator for above-grade or underground stations. (The technical requirements of ADA, e.g. 0.5″ maximum vertical gap, can be a little exacting, but doable.) Legacy systems are stuck with decisions that were made 100 years ago. For example, on the MBTA Green Line, I don’t think you could raise the platforms and lower the vehicle floors enough to get continuous level boarding. Even if you could, the vehicle corners are notched due to tight tunnel clearances, so the front door would have a gap in excess of the standard.

    Same goes for commuter rail. On a new system with no freight, you should build for level boardings, with stations on tangents (or slight curves if needed). But if you’re stuck with a low-level platform in the middle of 3 degree curve, what do you do? You could deploy platform extenders like the old-school South Ferry loop had, but that will cost money and increase maintenance costs. (We’re ignoring the freight RRs here; they will not allow high platforms and I think only the STB could force them to do so.)

    So on the capital side, ADA is not nothing, but I don’t think it’s a huge portion of costs.

    On the operations costs side, the paratransit issue is very real. Funding this service out of transit agency budgets is arbitrary. In a similar vein, children need bus service to school, and in some cities it is provided by the transit agency under its budget, while in others it’s by the school agency under its budget. (This sort of highlights why it’s hard to evaluate things that are truly public services based on things like farebox recovery; many police departments have a very high “farebox recovery” on traffic enforcement, but that doesn’t make it good policy.)

    Ultimately, it’s all just the government’s money, but from an accounting perspective it might make sense to move paratransit to health spending, so that it doesn’t result in cuts to the services used by 99% of riders.

    • On the Worcester Line, they have platform extenders, to allow level boarding to at least one car on each MBTA train but also oversize freight.

      Why they don’t build passenger trains to the specs of oversize freight is a separate question.

      • Alon, are you advocating Americans building BIGGER trains? ;-). I’ve heard gantlet tracks put forth as a solution to the problem of oversize freight and passenger trains sharing tracks. Do you know of anywhere that uses that system?

      • This is exactly what they do in Russia, incidentally. The passenger train loading gauge is considerably bigger than the freight loading gauge, in part to allow high platforms (and probably for other, historical, reasons too)

      • Gauntlet tracks are an awful idea – they’re maintenance-intensive, and the lines where passenger rail has to deal with the most freight are generally branch lines, where cost minimization is the most important.

    • There should be no such thing as paratransit. I don’t mean that disabled people should not have mobility. I mean that this mobility should not be provided by transit agencies. Give each disabled person a credit card which provides a discount of, say, 80% on taxi fare. Then let private taxi companies provide this service. It would be like food stamps – poor people deserve something to eat, but there is a reason the government does not run special grocery stores for them to visit. There are reasons why most buses and trains should be run by public organizations, but they do not apply to single-rider vehicles. The cost of these credit cards can be provided out of a general health fund or health insurance plan, rather than falling on transit systems.

    • It’s worth reminding all that the ADA paratransit mandate is one giant Federally-imposed unfunded mandate on transit agencies. It is indeed a huge cost.

      This is also the area where I have the most hope for future reform and demand-responsive services. If Uber (or a similar such company/platform) is ever able to get into the contracting game to help manage dispatch for demand-responsive services like paratransit; and if driverless cars do indeed bring about the era of cheap, automated taxis; and if those cheap, automated taxis are designed and built to meet ADA requirements…

      There’s a plausible confluence there that might help lift the burden off of transit agencies to meet the end goals of the paratransit mandate in a much more efficient way; allowing transit providers to focus energy and resources on higher capacity services.

  3. The paratransit mandate was actually supposed to be a stick to beat transit agencies with: the mandate was “make your regular services accessible, or else we’ll force you to provide paratransit”.

    This worked at most agencies. At a few recalcitrant agencies like the NYC MTA, it didn’t work and they need to be beaten a lot harder: they need to be simply ordered to make their services accessible period.

    The bigger problem is that there is “residual paratransit usage” at many agencies, even after the regular system *has* been made accessible. This was an unintentional accident; it’s mostly kidney dialysis patients and a few other severely disabled people; and it probably does need to be funded out of some other pot of money like Medicare.

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