Public Rail Transit is Overpriced, Inefficient

A researcher at the conservative/libertarian Cato Institute named Randal O’Toole has done a lot of great work debunking the myths of American public transit. O’Toole explains over and over that rail-based public transit systems (commuter trains, subways, trolleys, Amtrak, etc.) in particular are grossly expensive per passenger and that they often take funding away from buses, which generally serve poorer populations. Here are excerpts from two O’Toole essays with a comment after each:

O’Toole writes: …many cities that spent federal dollars building expensive transit projects saw falling ridership. In Portland, Ore., often cited as the model for public transit, both light-rail and bus ridership declined. Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, also saw fewer bus and rail riders, as did urban areas with older rail systems, such as Boston and Chicago. Furthermore, rail ridership fell in Albuquerque, N.M.; Atlanta; Houston; Minneapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; Phoenix; Sacramento, Calif.; San Francisco; and even Washington, D.C. The main reason for ridership decline is that rail is expensive to build, expensive to operate and expensive to maintain. To keep trains running, transit agencies almost inevitably make cuts in bus service and raise bus fares. comment: Wouldn’t it have been great to have known all this before these cities spent all of this money building these systems? Yes, of course, but now that we do know it these systems are continuing to be built. Because, friends, you need to understand why these expensive rail systems are being built in the first place.

It is not to move commuters – it is done primarily to spend large amounts of taxpayer money, which is the central strategy of socialism. This strategy empowers and aggrandizes Democrat politicians who want to spend the money; employs unionized construction workers (i.e., Democrat voters) at outrageous wage scales who then vote Democrat and give campaign money to Democrats; creates new unionized, overpaid, bloated and inefficient bureaucracies to operate and manage these systems and then vote Democrat and contribute to Democrat candidates; and makes Democrats appear to be saviors of the people with their shiny new trains.

Here is an example of the fakery surrounding these publicly-funded passenger trains where is headquartered in Western Massachusetts. There are Democrats in this region who want to extend a state-subsidized commuter rail line to my town from New York City, 160 miles away. The extension goes 90 miles beyond the existing line. It would require a total of $200 million in funding by two state governments, Connecticut and Massachusetts, just to upgrade the line along established tracks and to buy the trains. Operating it would require large amounts of taxpayer cash, probably up to $20 million per year or more.

Rail proponents are predicting that these trains would carry 2 million riders a year, and would create $650 million in economic growth for my county. This is utterly preposterous. I have studied the actual numbers of Massachusetts riders who use the closest commuter terminal to my town over in New York state by twice counting the Massachusetts license plates in the parking lot. I estimate that the line’s Massachusetts extension would carry a maximum 35,000 riders a year and would create zero economic growth since there is zero associated economic growth in towns along the same route much closer to New York City.

These trains would also waste vast amounts of energy since they would run largely empty most of the time. These trains also would run along an upgraded freight rail line, and interrupt its crucial operations with 16 trains a day. But you would never know any of this by listening to the train cheerleaders. They just tell us over and over how wonderful it would be to have a train to New York, and they get stupid people to enthusiastically agree.

Meanwhile there already are three other ways to get to/from New York including a private-sector intercity bus company that has been running directly between my town and New York City for many decades. But it has cut back its schedule from 4 buses a day to 2 because demand has fallen. So obviously we do not need another transit line to/from the city costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another example: There is a commuter train that has been running between and beyond Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico since 2006. There are 11 weekday trains a day in each direction. The system is 97 miles long, cost more than $400 million to build, it carries a paltry 3,700 passengers a day (the same number of riders as four rush-hour subway trains in New York City), and costs the state of New Mexico $28.4 million annually to operate or $22 in state taxpayer subsidy for each passenger that boards a train.

Even if the system shuts down tomorrow New Mexico taxpayers are still on the hook for the construction costs. These trains then require more travel time than a comparable bus ride. Yet those same passengers could be moved on buses at a tiny fraction of the cost and much lower energy use.

O’Toole writes:
Regrettably, the (expensive new train systems) are often designed to attract middle-class travelers out of their cars, while buses are left to serve low-income neighborhoods, where people are more dependent on transit. Cuts in bus service are both unfair to transit-dependent riders and harmful to transit systems. The NAACP even successfully sued the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority for discrimination when the agency cut bus service to black and Hispanic neighborhoods in order to cover cost overruns on its rail projects. comment: Woah! Liberals hurting poor people? Of course. Liberals always hurt poor people but poor people don’t even know how it is done.

O’Toole writes: Considering that Seattle is building the most expensive light-rail line in the world — a three-mile underground route expected to cost close to $2 billion—future service cuts and overall ridership drops seem likely. comment: This just proves the adage that socialism always consumes itself if given enough time, which often is not much time at all.

O’Toole writes: In short, far from improving transit, federal funds for building glitzy and expensive rail lines often, if not always, harm both transit systems and transit riders. Commuter trains in Dallas-Fort Worth; Nashville; and Portland, Ore., are so expensive and carry so few riders that it would have cost less (and been better for the environment) to give every daily round-trip rider a new Toyota Prius every other year for the next 30 years than to build and run the rail lines. comment: To arrive at the conclusion about the Toyota Prius O’Toole has done a simple calculation – he has taken the total budget spent on the system, and the total fuel consumed, and divided it by the number of riders and it comes out to the cost and the fuel consumption of a new Prius every other year. It is shocking but absolutely true. This is the kind of straightforward math and real numbers that we need to see, that the rail fanatics don’t want you to see. These numbers make the whole story come alive. And this is precisely why O’Toole is hated by the train fanatics – because he exposes them repeatedly.

Here are two excerpts from another O’Toole study from 2008 discussing urban light-rail/subway commuter systems:

O’Toole writes: Rail construction almost always costs more than the original estimates. Denver voters approved a 119-mile rail system in 2004 on the promise that it would cost $4.7 billion to build it by 2017. The current estimate is up to $7.9 billion, and the regional transit agency says the system might not be complete until 2034. comment: As expected for a government project. And rest assured that it will be vastly more than $7.9 billion. Meanwhile the entire 1,700 mile transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco took 6 years to build between 1863 and 1869 using primitive hand-construction methods, and breaking ground through hostile and unpopulated plains, mountains and deserts. Now look at this from about a bridge crossing built in Southern California by two private-sector American freight railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF. This shows efficient private enterprise at work:

The Colton Crossing (bridge) project was completed in August 2013. Innovative construction methods, including cellular embankments as well as low bid prices, were responsible for the project coming in eight months ahead of schedule and significantly under budget, with the final cost being $93 million versus the budgeted $202 million.

O’Toole writes: Nor is rail transit good for the environment. Most US light-rail lines use more energy, per passenger mile, than an SUV. … Buses can provide better, faster, safer transit service than light rail at a far lower cost. comment: Yet the liberals have been disparaging buses for 100 years. They think that buses are “low class” and “not European enough.” And a politician does not get any good publicity standing next to a new bus. Only standing next to a new train. It’s amazing how that works.

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