« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Tracks to nowhere

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I’m a supporter of public transportation. And I’m a supporter of the government subsidizing the costs of those who ride. There are strong arguments to be made. In larger cities, like New York, no one would get anywhere without commuter trains, subways and busses. And people who do drive their cars to work in New York should thank people who use public transit. There isn’t enough road and parking if all of those public transit users suddenly had to drive themselves. (New Yorkers are reminded of this every once in a while when there’s a transit strike.)

And if you drive, your tax dollars should be used to subsidize the subway or bus rider. You, in a sense, are paying to keep them off the road. And we would have no public transit without government funding. The capital costs, like track, rail cars, busses, etc, are too much for the private sector to bare. And the asset utilization rates, where busses and subways sit idle during middays and evenings but are filled during mornings and late afternoon, are not practical for a for-profit corporation.

And we are building new transit systems at breakneck pace. Many of these projects are wasteful. I support public transit where it makes sense. Too many projects in the last decade will always be expensive-to-operate low-ridership systems. And I don’t support these money-holes.

Consider some of the worst offenders:

Nashville began commuter train service from Lebanon, Tennessee to downtown. The Nashville Star cost $3.3-million to start-up (a bargain because the trains ran on existing track, shared with freight railroads). But the trains have only 1,100 riders a day, and the transit system needed a $4-million state bailout. Six other commuter train lines are on hold because of the losses.

New Mexico spent $135-million to start up its RailRunner commuter train in Albuquerque. The train service was offered for free when it first started, with a very dramatic drop-off in ridership once the fare was collected. Now the service has been extended to Santa Fe for another $250-million. New Mexico has a 100-mile, 79-mile-per-hour train line linking its two largest cities. But ridership is only 3,300 a day, and the system is projected to have a deficit of at least $10-million a year through 2025.

Minneapolis also has a transit debacle on its hands with the Northstar commuter train. It cost $265-million to build (justified because that’s less than adding more lanes on I-94) and serves about $3,400 a day. It joins the under-performing Hiawatha light rail line, which cost an unconscionable $715-million to link the Mall of America and the airport with downtown Minneapolis. And even with all this, Minnesotans still don’t have what they need most: a reliable high speed service to and from St. Paul. That is a justifiable project based on population and traffic patterns. But the price tag is another $840-million, there are NIBMY and environmental objections, and it recreates a trolley line that was shortsightedly paved over in the 1950s. Public transit ridership has been up in the Twin Cities, but the start-up costs have been astronomical, and the area’s employment patterns (with fast growing suburbs that are less accessible via transit) are working against downtown-based transit projects.

Utah has added heavy-rail commuter service between Salt Lake City and Ogden, which is now being expanded to Provo. The ridership numbers are better – 14,000 a day – but the 88-mile run is more of an inter-city run than a true public transit system. Salt Lake City also has a two light rail lines that had very high start-up costs and are below-ridership expectations.

And there are other proposals being built that don’t seem particularly promising: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Ann Arbor and Anchorage. And let’s not forget there are still busy little planners in Madison who dream someday of more public transit there and would revive the Milwaukee-Madison Badger State Express project if there was a time when Scott Walker was no longer in office.

There is a certain enlightened guesswork in public transit planning. You need to be out in front of housing and economic trends, and projects need to be on the drawing board long before they’re actually needed. So everyone agrees that ridership projections are inexact. And costs, particularly land acquisition, are almost always more than expected. Some of these projects (Utah’s?) may indeed pan out in the future. Milwaukee-to-Madison may also someday make sense as the I-94 corridor fills in. But in the here-and-now the bias is heavily against cars, and that leads to some transit projects being green-lighted that can’t be justified. It’s no different than cities that are eschewing downtown curbside parking in favor of new bike lanes. Bikes are good. Cars are bad.

I was a regular train-commuter when I lived in Connecticut and worked in New York. These are vital transit systems. Washington DC, Long Island, New Jersey, Chicago, and San Francisco/Oakland all have critical mass and serve legitimate economic needs. But there are many other systems with astronomical costs and very low usage. And, while I’m a train guy, these projects are indefensible.

Chris Conley


Image:  Rail Runner commuter train, Santa Fe, New Mexico by Perry Planet via Wikicommons.com