Traffic snarl: Rail or rubber?

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Today, Balaker and Reed look at expanding the L.A. subway system. Yesterday they debated how to reduce congestion Later this week they'll focus on transit funding, building roads and rail, alternatives to traffic, and crazy ideas to fix the traffic problem.

Run away, train!By Ted Balaker
Bart,

Let's keep in mind that Los Angeles rail riders pay only about 3% of the overall cost of their trips. It would be easier to justify these hefty subsidies if the money were focused on helping the poor and handicapped—improved mobility works wonders for improving one's lot in life. But far too often officials spend lavishly on rail to subsidize those who already have good transportation options. And, as Environmental Defense's Robert Garcia explains, railophilia sucks up huge amounts of funds that could be used for moving people who need the only type of transit that really works for them, buses.

The price tag for the most extravagant bus system (think the Orange Line) is only about a third of what light rail costs, and light rail is downright cheap when compared to subways like the Red Line. (BTW, forget the original 376,000 daily ridership projection that was used to sell the line decades ago—we're still waiting for the Red Line to hit half of its reduced projection of 298,000). Public funds are always limited, and that means the more L.A. commits itself to rail, the less it can provide widespread transit service for those who need it most. Yet L.A. officials still back pricey rail systems because they regard them as the best way to lure relatively well-off suburbanites out of their sedans.

The typical Metrolink rider has an income of $65,000 and owns at least one car. The typical bus rider (chapter 12) has a household income of $15,000 and owns no car. But guess which way the subsidies flow? Each new bus trip costs taxpayers about a buck; each new rail trip costs about $21.

City Hall ribbon-cutters love rail, but it receives a much chillier reception among those with expertise in cost-benefit analysis. I was the lead author of a literature review (pdf) that examines economists' views on rail transit. Economists are fascinated (and annoyed) by how rail remains politically popular despite persistently failing to make good on its core promises, such as cutting congestion, getting motorists out of their cars, and cleaning the environment (operating big, nearly-empty trains wastes plenty of energy).

Economists from the Brookings Institution and UC Berkeley recently published an especially telling paper that helps answer the "how much more rail?" question. The authors examined 25 rail transit systems nationwide to figure out whether rail transit is socially desirable. And they didn't simply point out that all systems lose money; rather, they examined the larger societal benefits that rail backers often tout.

Their conclusion: "We find that with the single exception of BART in the San Francisco Bay area, every U.S. [rail] transit system actually reduces social welfare" (emphasis in original). They find that the yearly drain was typically north of the $100 million mark, and peg L.A.'s train drain (Metro) at $125 million per year. The public mistakenly assumes rail improves social welfare because "supporters have sold [rail systems] as an antidote to the social costs associated with automobile travel, in spite of strong evidence to the contrary." Their suggestion: stop building rail. I'm inclined to agree.

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation and co-author of the book The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think and What We Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield 2006).


Magical thinking theories By Bart Reed
Ted,

Reading your constant inclusion of pointy-head wonk statistics about how transit is bad and costly but private cars are free is really making my head spin. Ideally, any form of public transit, be it rail or buses, should serve where a good percent of the public travels, such as our dispersed areas with high job densities. These systems must transport passengers in a speedy fashion with frequent, punctual service.

You insist it's noble to give mobility options to "the poor and handicapped," but these folks are entitled to better-quality transportation just as those "relatively well-off suburbanites" who, you say, love being stuck in "their sedans" because alternative transportation choices don't exist.

Subways should be built where traffic is too dense to make private vehicles, buses, and at-grade light rail trains reliable. They should also be built when there are no available right-of-ways and development is too dense to acquire property for surface routing.

Admittedly, subways are inherently costly pieces of infrastructure, but you ignore the $40 million-per-lane-mile costs for roads whose capacity is a paltry 1,650 vehicles per hour. You make wild claims that Los Angeles can get a more attractive bus system for maybe half the capital cost of rail, but ignore the huge bus operating costs. Rail infrastructure can last for decades or even hundreds of years. The existing Red Line was built for $4.7 billion, but more than 304 million boardings have been made in 14 years of operations. 40 million boardings were made in the last fiscal year alone, and the number keeps climbing.

Because subways are underground, they are not constrained to follow above-ground physical features such as mountains or street grids. Thus, you could build subways in any direction necessary. Rail in general also promotes better uses of scarce land by bringing various services close to stations and making them accessible to pedestrians. You hate the fact that this discourages auto travel and in turn saves consumers on fuel, parking and maintenance costs. Time on transit can be spent productively, unlike driving time. You should try Metrolink and see how many laptops are in action.

As a sharp divergence between your magical thinking theories and actual practice, Metro spent over $1 billion on the bus system during the Consent Decree years yet has not achieved meaningful ridership increases, hovering just over 1 million boardings a day for several years now. Buses and even those on dedicated busways lack the capacity to handle passengers, as demonstrated by the too-popular Orange Line.

Also, the cost of moving passengers by rail is historically less than doing the same on buses on a mile-per-mile basis, largely due to constantly increasing labor costs. Worse yet, buses must be replaced after 500,000 miles, which is only 5 years of service for Orange Line buses, versus 30-50 years for rail cars.

Ted, reality is quite unlike the strange social theories you promote, as you could move more people with less operating and capital costs on rail than on bus. A fanciful bus system would be more costly and less attractive than a rail system in the long run. But for you, a supporter of the concrete, asphalt and rebar industries, efficiency is not part of the mantra.

Bart Reed is the executive director of The Transit Coalition, a Sylmar based non-profit dealing with issues of transportation, mobility and land use planning.

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