Subsidized Light Rail and Reactionary Politics

Jim Miller has an excellent post on Portland, Oregon’s mass-transit boondoggles, and on the religious zeal and overarching intrusiveness of the Pacific Northwest’s political class in support of wasteful programs that most local citizens don’t want:

Some may wonder why I call Seattle reactionary. That seems obvious to me, but may not be to others, especially those on the left. On the whole, the political class in Seattle wants the races to be treated differently, is fond of 19th century technology, such as trollies and light rail, and generally wants to manage every detail of a citizen’s life. All of these, especially the last, are very old ideas. In fact, the last idea goes back to ancient Sumeria. I think it is fair to call their support for outmoded ideas, ideas that have not met the test of time, reactionary.

Worth reading in full.

18 thoughts on “Subsidized Light Rail and Reactionary Politics”

  1. Portland’s failure comes into focus only when you compare it to its neighbors, north and south.

    “Portland Land Use: the Third City” by David Smith at Affordable Housing Institute: US Blog on March 15, 2006

    In response to my post (Part 1, Part 2) on Portland’s growth-inhibiting policies, reader Robert Schwartz of Columbus, Ohio, proposes a doubly cynical epitaph:

    Portland is between Seattle and San Francisco Bay. The 21st century has been invented in those two areas. What has Portland done? Reminds me of Graham Greene’s The Third Man and Harry Lime’s great line:

    Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed … but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? … The cuckoo clock.

  2. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been in Amsterdam, but I still remember how nice the electric trolley cars were compared with the noisy and often smoky buses that are found on American city streets. This benefit is a function of the propulsion system, not of the rail itself.

    Seems to me the money invested in fixed light-rail infrastructure might be better spent on all-electric buses. The urban bus is one application for which elecric propulsion may actually be economically rational at the present time…recharging/battery swap is relatively easy, and the benefits of regenerative braking are high because of all the stops.

    I’m a strong advocate of freight rail, and a railroad investor, but I don’t see the benefit of urban passenger rail unless it can be given a dedicated right-of-way, either buried or elevated, to avoid conflict with car traffic.

  3. I don’t mean to sound like a fully paid up member of the Novy Nomenklatura, but so it goes.

    The average person has no idea how much it costs to pave and repave a section of road, nor how much less it takes to lay down light rail. But the elite does.

    The average person doesn’t know why it takes so long to repair roadways from wear and tear, or after a washout, or (relevant to Portland) after a quake. He just knows that the road crew stalling his commute must be slacking off. The elite, however, knows full well. And the elite also knows that the day after the San Francisco earthquakes, the trollies were already running again.

    Sometimes the people are wrong, and the elite is right. Not in my neck of the woods, though. In my town in Massachusetts, we’ve been struggling for 30 years to get a trolley line extended to us. Right now the biggest stumbling block is that the US DOT is enamored of “bus rapid transit.” And given how the automobile lobby works hard to keep it that way, we’r e not too hopefull for a win. Damned elites…

  4. Why is the DOT the problem? It may be that the DOT favors buses because long experience with light rail shows that few people use it. Buses are cheap and flexible by comparison. The DOT isn’t preventing your town from paying for the rail system by itself. Why should the rest of the country pay for your trains?

    The “automobile lobby” isn’t why people drive instead of taking trains. They drive because driving is much more useful and convenient for most of them in most parts of the country. Train enthusiasts never face that fact. It might be different if these urban-train experiments were wildly successful, but they never are.

  5. Buses are cheaper to buy, but a lot more expensive to keep running once you’ve bought them.

    And they depend on it being a given that you’ve already laid down the roadway for them to run on, and that you will keep maintaining it. That is no longer a given. Asphalt is expensive. Machine fuel is expensive, and having to repeat it every 5 years is insane, when lines of light rail can go for decades without needing maintenance, and can get it done cheaper and quicker when the time does come for it.

    This is why we’ve wanted the Green Line extended to us for decades. Right now a stumbling block is that the DOT will subsidize BRT but not light rail. Oddly enough, BRT requires a dedicated right of way, just like light rail, but also requires buses instead of trams and road instead of track. So it has all the disadvantages of a light rail line, and none of the advantages. As for the DOT, GM has their ear. We don’t.

    And as for subsidies, what road projects AREN’T federally subsidized?

  6. I don’t like subsidies generally. However, if there are going to be subsidies I think it’s better to subsidize systems that people want to use, and they want to use roads. People use roads even with tolls or congestion-pricing schemes, whereas few people use rail even when ticket prices are almost 100% subsidized. Also, lots of roads already exist, while rail proponents are always arguing that more people would use rail if we only built more rights-of-way.

    I would suggest also that roads are not highly subsidized when road- and fuel-tax revenues (at all levels) are taken into account.

  7. “whereas few people use rail even when ticket prices are almost 100% subsidized. ” No need to bring Amtrak into it, as that’s Apples and oranges.

    Roads already exist. But a road’s existence is a relative thing, and gets relatively less existent every spring thaw, and by 5 years its existence is highly debatable. The same does not apply to tracks, especially light rail tracks.

  8. Omri,

    Light rail and mass transit is cheaper for the state but it isn’t cheaper for the society as a whole or the individual. Light rail usually makes individuals tradeoff for time, increased housing cost or other cost associated with a loss of individual choice. Politicians gravitate to light rail because it lets them tax people with time and lost opportunities leaving more actual money to spend on other more attention grabbing vote buying projects. The citizenry, however, usually values their time and discretion so such projects see little use.

    The vast majority of citizens may have very little understandings of the details of transportation spending but on the other hand, elites seem to have very little understanding of how people wish to live their lives. Since the ultimate point of the exercise is to help or at least not interfere in, the happiness of the citizens perhaps we should gravitate to solutions that most of the people chose.

  9. “whereas few people use rail even when ticket prices are almost 100% subsidized. ” No need to bring Amtrak into it, as that’s Apples and oranges.

    I wasn’t thinking of Amtrak. I was thinking of urban rail systems where the price of each ticket is a small fraction of the system’s average cost per ride. If these rail systems didn’t exist local government could give people cash grants out of public funds, to cover the cost of their bus or van or taxi or limo fare to work, and still come out ahead overall.

  10. Shannon Love: and road projects raise costs through property taxes and by lowering property values for properties right next to them, not to mention taxing people’s time in bad traffic, and by keeping those who can’t afford cars from drawing any benefit. They also raise costs by driving businesses out of the core and onto the next layer of sprawl where they can’t be reached except through a long drive. Nothing is without cost. News at 11.

    All these are considerations the citizenry is generally too busy to pay attention to, until gas prices blow past the roof and politicians take advantage of it by scapegoating “speculators.”

    Infrastructure decisions are made by undemocratic bodies. Such is life. At least in Portland the undemocratic body making those decisions is paying attention to what things might be 5 years from now.

    Jonathan: those rails are subsidized because they get people out of the traffic stream and help keep down the cost of people idling in jammed traffic, for starters.

  11. For some facts, see American Heritage archives, 1998, “The Myths of the Streetcar Revival”. I remember reading it when I subscribed to the magazine because we were debating a lightrail system in my area at the time.

    The system was subsequently built at a cost three times the original estimate, and each ride is subsidized to the tune of about $2. Fun way to go to the ballgame, though, even if I’m very unsure it’s worth a billion dollars.

  12. Hmm. 1998. Gasoline prices were what, $1 a gallon? And asphalt prices weren’t causing municipalities to postpone road work.

    It’s 2007 now.

  13. [Road projects] also raise costs by driving businesses out of the core and onto the next layer of sprawl where they can’t be reached except through a long drive.

    Suburbs — what you revealingly call “sprawl” — are expanding, everywhere, because they are attractive to most people. Most people want to live in safe areas with some space and raise families. Cities are not those areas, because of crime, the presence of large numbers of dysfunctional people, expensive real estate and lousy schools. So of course, people who can afford to leave, leave. And businesses follow. That’s why people leave the core, and attempting to pen them in by restricting road construction won’t keep them there. All it will do is discourage people from living in the city and encourage transformation of the suburbs into new, edge cities, outside of the regulatory control of the corrupt spendthrifts who govern the core. If you want people to ride trains, and they don’t want to ride trains, you aren’t going to be able to force them to ride trains by cutting road construction. They will simply leave the area and go to places where they are treated better.

    As for rails being “subsidized because they get people out of the traffic stream and help keep down the cost of people idling in jammed traffic,” it would be cheaper to apply those subsidies to new roads — which, unlike trains, people will use. I mean, if you’re going to subsidize commuters (not that I think that’s a good idea in itself), why not buy them helicopter rides? It would probably be cheaper on a per-ride basis than building train systems and wouldn’t require new rights of way.

    Most Americans don’t want to ride trains, given a choice. Instead of trying to force them to do something they don’t want to do, why not look into ways to improve transportation that are compatible with people’s preferences? If we were talking about Arabs or Africans or members of isolated tribes everyone would use the term, “culturally appropriate.” Maybe it’s time for a little more cultural sensitivity toward Americans.

    Or are you more interested in changing the way people live than you are in lowering transportation costs?

  14. You really need to check the news. The outermost exurbs are not faring well in the housing crunch.

    Again, check the news. America’s road subsidies and the resulting construction patterns have reached economic limits now that gasoline isn’t ridiculously cheap. And you “Chicago boyz” should notice that the roads in your neck of the woods are pretty high above bedrock. They will not last long at all.

  15. I don’t understand your point. Housing prices are weak in many places, including cities, for reasons having little to do with fuel prices. (Where I live downtown condos are affected more than single-family homes.) And trains run on fuel too, if indirectly.

    Roads are heavily enough used that their construction and operating costs are easily borne by users, via fuel taxes, vehicle taxes and/or tolls. That this is true is indicated by recent activity in private toll-road construction. There is no parallel activity in private rail construction. It seems reasonable to assume that private companies would propose private rail projects if the costs of doing so were low enough to make such ventures profitable. The fact that this does not happen is, I think, strong empirical evidence that it’s not worth doing.

    Rail advocates always ignore, as you are ignoring, that rail ridership is low because people won’t use rail unless fares are heavily subsidized, and even then most of them won’t use it. Declining use of urban rail, as a percentage of trips, is a durable trend across industrialized societies, as is increased use of private automobiles. Privatized, unsubsidized roads can work; the same is not true for urban rail lines. These trends are functions of productivity growth, increased personal wealth and the limitations of urban downtowns as family residential areas. They have little to do with fuel prices.

    As I asked before, are you more interested in changing the way people live or in lowering transportation costs?

  16. Omri Smith is intentionally missing the point…

    Mass transit doesn’t give the consumer the choice he or she wants…

    How come those carry on about the alledged upsides of mass transit (for SOME people there are upsides) aren’t willing to shoulder the entire cost of such systems?

    Why should people who don’t use it, subsidize it? What’s with this socialism?

    BTW I don’t know where Omri Smith lives but the exurbs around the St. Louis, Mo area are doing quite well…

Comments are closed.