Light Rail: Boon or Boondoggle?

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Letter Writer:

Gregory Michaud

Date Posted:

Aug. 22, 2006

Letter:

Are you guys real economists? Lambasting light rail is amazing. You claim that cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis have only around 20 percent revenue. Well, tell me how much revenue do automobiles generate? You have $39 billion spent on the federal level, and I would estimate the same on the state level. And I don't mean taxes as revenue. Building more roads, forcing people to use cars, forcing people to pay taxes on oil, etc. so they can get around is not revenue. Cities are so poorly designed that the automobile is the only option individuals can use in many cases. The truth is this country needs new leadership at all levels, including economists. Government is nothing more than spokesmen for corporate interests. The clearest example is the obvious need to develop energy savings strategies. Such thinking is completely ignored by government at all levels. Why, because the auto, oil, road building lobby is tickled pink with the way things are. Let's see: Government can't guide the design of cities so that the car is but one aspect of a larger transportation system. We have a government that can't develop energy policies except those that stick money into the pockets of the already wealthy. We have a government with naive economists who have never been out of the country and don't realize effective mass transit can be built for all income levels and be a delight to use. And finally we have a government that works only for insiders, lobbyists and corporate raiders of all types. I can say more. But this is not the government of Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin and Washington. It is not a government of the people, for the people and by the people.

Editor's Response:

I assure you that we are real economists, although it shouldn't take an economist to know that revenue generated by taxing gasoline is revenue. You can redefine the word if you like, but that would be silly. Doing so would simply ignore the fact that revenue generated in this way goes toward paying the costs of infrastructure to support auto travel. Nevertheless, you seem to have ignored the third and fourth paragraphs of the article, which discuss the inefficiencies of auto travel. Even so, the solution does not appear to require spending billions on little-used light rail systems that come nowhere close to covering their costs. The solution certainly does include efficient pricing of all types of travel so that benefits and costs can be more closely aligned.


Letter Writer:

Tom Fairbairn, retiree, of South Richfield, Minn.

Date Posted:

July 29, 2004

Letter:

This article was excellent, as far as it went. I think there was one point overlooked entirely, however. There is a tendency to treat mass-transit cost entirely differently than road costs in that mass transit, especially nonroad varieties, is required to justify every cent spent on every line cost with the maintenance facilities and other infrastructure included, while highway use costs appear to never include either ongoing maintenance or, indeed, the actual cost of highway/road construction.

To compare apples to apples, these costs need to be included in the overhead charges for highway use in detail, and that cost divided by the number of people who use the facilities, so that the real cost of use per boarding is seen. It should then be incumbent upon the governments involved to be certain that the governments pick up no more cost per boarding for highways/roads than for other forms of transportation. The user's portion can rightly be apportioned through the fuel taxes paid, which not only is regulated by the mileage the individual drives but also by the fuel efficiency of each vehicle. This should be a flat fee per gallon regardless of user.

If we are to have equitable forms of transport of all types, the costs of providing the services have to be equalized to the extent of being truthful with everybody about the real costs of providing each form of transport. Europe and other areas do this much better than we in the United States; that's partly why their fuel costs are so high compared to ours and why they have such superior public transport in most cases.

Both highway and air transportation incur huge ongoing costs to the taxpayer that are basically invisible to most people because individuals don't directly pay the real line-item costs of these methods. Rail and bus services have to explain and justify every single penny spent—why not air, river, and highway/road services as well? All are equally basic utilities/services, not much different than potable water, electricity, telephone and natural gas.

Editor's Response:

Mr. Fairbairn is quite correct in saying that all of the enormous government expenditures on transportation should face serious cost-benefit analysis. But if light rail seems to get picked on too much, it is probably because it is so much more expensive than autos in terms of taxpayer subsidy per passenger mile. As outlined in the report by Garrett cited in the Castelazo and Garrett article, the subsidy per passenger mile for light rail is more than 38 times that for automobiles.


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