Friday, April 1, 2016

Mass Transit: Once Again, With Politicos Involved, Not All Is As It Seems

"Randal O’Toole: Well, there’s a recent story that – unfortunately it wasn’t in the Onion but it was an authentic story in the Los Angeles Times that said despite the fact that we’re spending billions of dollars on transit, transit ridership is declining and that’s true here in Washington DC as well. Transit ridership seems to have peaked about just before the financial crash and it’s not really recovering since the financial crash.

Really transit has been on a downhill since 1960 or 1950, the end of World War Two. What we’re seeing is people plowing more and more money into it and productivity is going down. The number of transit riders carried per transit worker is steadily declining.

The amount of money we spend to get one person out of their car has gone from a dollar in 1960 to $25 or more today just to get one person out of their car for one trip. We build transit lines that are so expensive that it would have been cheaper to give every single daily round trip rider on that transit line a new Toyota Prius every single year for the rest of their lives than to keep running that …

Trevor Burrus: I’m laughing and crying at the same time.

Randal O’Toole: And there are a lot of forces at work here. It started out in the 1970s. Congress had given cities the incentive to take over private transit. In 1965, almost all transit in America was private. By 1975, it was almost all public. Congress had said to cities you take over transit. We will pay for your new buses. We will pay for your capital costs. You just have to pay the operating costs.

So cities took them over and then in 1973, congress said, “Oh by the way, if you have an interstate freeway that’s planned in your city and you decide to cancel it, you can take the capital cost of that freeway and use it for transit capital investments.” Well, cities thought that was great except for buses are so cheap that they couldn’t afford to operate all the buses that you could buy for the cost of an interstate freeway.

So then the mayor of Portland came up with an idea. Let’s build a light rail line. That’s really, really expensive. That will absorb all the costs of the freeway even though it’s only going to carry about a tenth of as many people as that freeway. It will absorb all that cost and it won’t cost that much more to operate than a bus. So we will be able to use that money and I won’t be accused of costing the region jobs because we’re not building that freeway because we’re building the light rail instead.

Well, what happened was that created – that transformed the transportation and construction industry. Almost everybody in the industry who was building roads could easily transform into building light rail. So they didn’t care whether they were building roads or rail or what. They just wanted to build something and if people wanted to build rail, that was fine with them and they became a lobby for rail. People have talked about the highway lobby. Today the rail construction lobby in Washington DC is ten times richer than the highway lobby in Washington.

Trevor Burrus: Do any of these light rails pay for themselves?

Randal O’Toole: No. First of all, no transit – public transit pays for itself simply because it doesn’t have to because they’re all drawing on government money. There are a few transit systems in this country that do pay for themselves because they’re entirely private. They don’t get any subsidies. One is the Atlantic City Jitney. One is the New York Waterway. It’s a ferry system in New York City between New Jersey and Manhattan.

One is the publico, a jitney system in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Actually carries more people than the public transit system that was subsidized and encouraged more passenger miles. There are private transit systems in some cities that don’t regulate private transit operations that compete against public transit and do so very effectively. Most cities however made it illegal to compete against the public transit agency so they can just raise their costs with impunity and charge at the taxpayers. Transit cost them – transit on average, four times as much to move a person one mile as it does to drive a car that mile. Rail transit is far, far more expensive than bus transit and …

Trevor Burrus: I mean a bunch of politicians choosing a bunch of options that are super expensive and bad at their job. I mean this wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. But it’s so bad. You have to wonder like why this is even – I mean light rail. When I’m home in Denver, I see the light rail cruise by and let’s say there are about seven people on it and I wonder how much it costs to just take these seven people, this length of – why are they doing that? I mean it’s just crazy …." - Transportation, Land Use, and Freedom,, 02/26/2016

Link to the entire article appears below: