The Case(s) against Rail Transit (and the financial collapses in Dallas and Austin)I've been building up a list of recent stories on national problems with rail transit projects. The most comprehensive is Randal O'Toole's new report at Cato on "Defining Success - The Case against Rail Transit". It is packed with disturbing statistics. Here is the Executive Summary:
Over the past four decades, American cities have spent close to $100 billion constructing rail transit systems, and many billions more operating those systems. The agencies that spend taxpayer dollars building these lines almost invariably call them successful even when they go an average of 40 percent over budget and, in many cases, carry an insignificant number of riders. The people who rarely or never ride these lines but still have to pay for them should ask, “How do you define success?”
This Policy Analysis uses the latest government data on scores of rail transit systems to evaluate the systems’ value and usefulness to the public using six different tests:
- Profitability: Do rail fares cover operating costs?
- Ridership: Do new rail lines significantly increase transit ridership?
- Cost-Effectiveness: Are new rail lines less expensive to operate than buses providing service at similar frequencies and speeds?
- The “Cable Car” Test: Do rail lines perform as well as or better than cable cars, the oldest and most expensive form of mechanized land-based transportation?
- The Economic Development Test: Do new rail lines truly stimulate economic development?
- The Transportation Network Test: Do rail lines add to or place stresses upon existing transportation networks?
No system passes all of these tests, and in fact few of them pass any of the tests at all.His short analysis of Houston is on p.25. He also calculates that Metro loses $3.27 for each passenger trip on the light rail, which is actually not bad compared to most of the lines in the list (and in line with the loss subsidy for bus trips). But I would expect the loss to be much, much worse on most of the new lines.
Since around 1970, the modern rail transit boom has led American cities to spend close to $100 billion building, and billions more operating, new rail transit lines. This analysis indicates that these new lines almost always waste taxpayer dollars. Instead of providing cost-effective transportation, rail transit mainly transfers wealth from taxpayers to rail contractors, downtown property owners, and a few transit riders who prefer trains to buses.
Most of the few rail regions that enjoyed increases in per-capita ridership or transit’s share of commuting supplemented rail construction with strict land-use rules that reduce housing affordability; transportation plans that deliberately increase congestion to discourage driving; and subsidies to high-density transit-oriented developments along the rail lines. The costs of these policies are high and benefits negligible.
By almost any objective criteria — profitability, ridership, cost-efficiency, the Cable-Car Test, economic development, and the effect of rail transit on a region’s transportation system as a whole — few American rail transit systems make sense. Congress should correct the perverse incentives that encourage transit agencies to choose high-cost solutions to transit problems. Transit agencies should stop building rail transit. With the possible exception of a few subway and commuter-rail lines in New York and one or two other major cities, agencies should make plans to shut down existing systems when they are worn out and would otherwise require expensive rehabilitation. Those exceptions should be maintained only if they can be locally funded, preferably out of user fees and not general taxes.Moving on to stories on specific transit agencies and their rail plans:
- The Economist on the unfolding fiscal disaster of the massive Denver rail plan - a $2.4 billion shortfall.
- Unsustainable Austin. Massive cost overruns and few riders.
- Money woes mean Dallas transit agency must cut jobs, rail plans. DART will not be able to build any more rail for 20 years, and will need budget cuts, including jobs and service.
"DART just figured out they can't pay for proposed expansion. The most troubling aspect of this is that they will no longer be able to build the second (reliever) route through downtown that was supposed to open along with the Orange line. Consultants have stated that the opening of the Orange line and the full Green line will create massive gridlock for trains and cars downtown without a second line through downtown."
- What should DART do now?
- Do Austin, Houston transit messes affect North Texas? (Yes) The state legislature is unlikely to support more money for transit, including local tax options, because the transit agency problems and mismanagement in the headlines.
Can you see how it might be a blessing in disguise if we lose the $900 million in federal subsidies for the N and SE LRT lines and instead did a re-think of the Metro Solutions plan before we join the same headlines above?
“Why do politicians love trains? Because they can tell where the tracks go. They know where everybody’s going. It’s all about control. It is all about power. Politics itself is nothing but an attempt to achieve power and prestige without merit. That is the definition of politics. Politicians hate cars. They have always hated cars, because cars make people free. Not only free in the sense that they can go anywhere they want, which bugs politicians in the first place, but they can move out of the political district that the politician represents.”
--P. J. O’Rourke, “Driven Crazy,” Reason, November 2009, p. 15.Not necessarily completely accurate, but (darkly) funny. I think it stems more from a fundamental disconnect. Voters aren't happy with their commutes and they've experienced trains in older cities or other countries that work, and wonder why they can't have the same thing - even though newer cities have fundamentally changed around the car in the last 60 years, and the economics of rail has deteriorated to the point of infeasibility (outrageous costs, few riders). These arguments are too complex to easily convey to voters, so politicians do the simple thing: promise rail, and either study it indefinitely because it can't be made to work (or "we're waiting on federal funds"), or actually build something that we're ultimately disappointed with, either because it was done on the cheap and doesn't connect where people really want to go, or it has massive cost overruns that bankrupt the local transit agency (or, in some cases, both). This is also why you don't see almost any agency building any rail without massive federal subsidies, because those subsidies are the only thing that make it remotely feasible. And they still run into cost problems, even with the subsidies, and ridership is almost always disappointing. Yet the rail momentum seems unstoppable, certainly by anything as flimsy as logic. Sigh.