lion-hunting-5by James A. Bacon

Art Guzzetti, public policy director for the American Public Transportation Association, gamely walked into the lion’s den Sunday evening when participating in a debate at the American Dream Coalition annual conference attended by fiscal conservatives and free marketeers from around the country. He was the consummate gentleman, he never lost his cool, and he made the familiar case that mass transit helps alleviate traffic congestion, is environmentally friendly, provides access and mobility for the poor and elderly and, thanks to the growing preference for walkable urbanism, is the wave of the future.

And he got taken down like a baby antelope.

Guzzetti simply had no satisfactory answers to most of the points raised by members of the audience, many of whom were grassroots activists who had been fighting heavy rail boondoggles in communities from Honolulu to Tampa. His free-market counterpart in the discussion, Randal O’Toole, the Cato Institute’s transportation scholar, calmly and politely dismembered his arguments.

The specific topic of debate was the federal New Starts program, which doles out some $2 billion a year to communities building new fixed-guideway transit systems (heavy rail, light rail and street cars). O’Toole took the position that the construction program should be abolished and the money distributed on a formula basis.

To my mind O’Toole’s most devastating point was the fact that rail and street car systems around the United States have a collective $77 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. None of the projects have paid their capital costs, and all operate at a deficit. No one knows where the money is coming from to keep the systems repaired, yet the federal government is dispensing billions to localities eager to build or expand money-losing transit systems of their own.

Buses, O’Toole argued, are a more cost-effective form of mass transit. If you want to capture a more affluent clientele than traditional city buses, which is necessary to increase modal market share, you can equip them with Wi-Fi and leather seats. You can serve food and pastries. Riders can swipe cards or smart phones rather than fumble for change. “If you take a bus and paint it a special color, you can call it a special bus” — and people will ride it.

The irony is that the massive investment in rail has come at the expense of bus transit. Rail and street-car transit is so expensive that local and/or regional authorities have curtailed spending on buses to help pay for it. Yuppies get to ride the train while the poor and elderly find bus routes more constricted. That’s a major reason why, O’Toole explained, despite the aggressive expansion of light and heavy rail around the country and all the factors touted by Gazzetti, mass transit’s modal share (which includes bus) has increased imperceptibly over the years.

During the conference other speakers and presenters drilled into case studies. Unionized workforces hamper productivity and run up massive unfunded pension liabilities. Government monopolies make poor management decisions. Bad projects are driven forward by special interests — unions, big construction firms, property owners whose land will gain value from proximity to rail stops, environmental groups, goo-goo civic boosters who see only the benefits while ignoring the costs and risks, and government officials looking for Hail-Mary congestion solutions — and many projects are helplessly flawed from inception.

Perhaps most fundamentally, mass transit advocates seem to learn nothing from experience. They live in a world of computer models and never monitor results, said John Charles, a community activist who has made a point of documenting mass-transit promises and performance in Portland over the years. “When you live in a world of future projections, you can’t be proved wrong. There is simply no consequence to being wrong.”

The mass transit community seems totally uninterested in addressing the problems of low workforce productivity, unfunded pensions, deferred maintenance and construction cost overruns, the kind of reforms that are necessary to restore public confidence and put mass transit on a sound economic footing. The mass transit lobby has chosen the path of rent seeking: lobbying for subsidies and resisting rules and regulations that might hold them financially accountable. According to O’Toole, the American Public Transportation Association’s $24 million budget is several times larger than that of all the highway lobby groups in the nation’s capital combined (not that the highway lobby is an entity to be admired).

Putting mass transit back on a sound financial footing is essential for the United States to maintain a world-class transportation system. The first step is to stop making things worse by building new projects that shouldn’t be built.

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30 responses to “Eviscerating Rail Transit”

  1. so how many took METRO to get from their hotel to the conference?


    re: ” American Public Transportation Association’s $24 million budget”

    what does that have to do with the price of tea in china? is it govt funded?

    and it spends more than all the highway lobbies in the US?


    re: new projects

    let me introduce you to the COPS program:

    and it works the same way local transit funding works

    they give you the seed money – good for a few years and then it stops and the locality has to figure out if the additional services are worth the money if they have to pay it.

    and many do. We have more deputies because the initial hires were done with COPS grants and then the county decided they could not do without them.

    sneaky but effective!

    I’m disheartened to hear that fixed-guideway rail is cannibalizing bus transit and I point out VRE commuter rail where people making much larger salaries than if they worked locally and needed local transit options – ride VRE for about 6 dollars a trip – that costs about 20 dollars a trip.

    Commuter Rail is American Dream rail as it primarily serves those who work in NoVa but want to live in a subdivision 50 miles away.

    I wonder if that baby antelope was also dispatched with the same zeal…

    1. A friend of mine is an alternate to the Tysons Partnership Board. At this month’s meeting, there was a discussion of transit. Today, a mere two percent of the trips to and from Tysons are made via bus, despite a plethora of buses serving Tysons, both in rush hour and the rest of the day.

      Presumably, the early 2014 arrival of the Silver Line will boost transit mode share over time. But keep in mind, the mode share necessary by 2050 is 31% of all trips to and from Tysons, including those in the areas that are not near rail. The trip reduction requirements are very aggressive – 65% in the immediate 1/4 mile of each station and 25% in “remote” Tysons.

      The grand test of new urbanism has begun. I hope I still around to see the results — but not up close.

      1. Yeah, it is one heck of an experiment alright. Kind of like Virginia’s own Big Dig.

        1. I thought “big dig” was a highway project. 😉

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Good to hear that Dr. No and the conferees from the Progress Prevention Society have concluded their whine-fest. At times like these I have to head to Tysons to marvel at the brand new Metro stations ready to open.

    1. Ah, progress. Gotta have those shiny new trains. So what if buses are a fraction of the cost of rail and far more efficient.

      The only progress rail transit bureaucracies are making is towards insolvency (see Portland, Boston, SF Bay area et al.).

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        I’ve traveled all over the world. I can’t remember a densely populated city in any developed country that didn’t have rail based mass transit. For some reason, densely populated areas all come to the conclusion that they need roads, buses, rail and sometimes bicycles, boat transit, etc. New York City (where I worked for two years) would simply shut down if they closed the subway and tried to use buses instead.

        Now, you may say that Northern Virginia hasn’t reached the level of population density required for rail based mass transit. That brings me to the second point – transit oriented development. I lived one block off Wilson Blvd in Arlington from 1982 – 1986. Back then, Wilson Blvd was a broken down and decrepit string of failing and closed stores. There were plenty of buses going up and down Wilson Blvd. Funny what happened as the Orange line “took root”. Walkable communities, mixed use development, an influx of young knowledge workers, much higher population density, a thriving start up community. All because of the Metro.

        Do those who claim rail based mass transit is heavily subsidized give Metro any credit for the immense gains in property tax receipts along the Ballston – Rosslyn corridor? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

        1. The Orange Line, Arlington’s existing grid of streets, the blighted condition of much of the R-B Corridor and its narrowness have all contributed to one of the greatest success stories in redevelopment. The undergrounding of the Orange Line in the Corridor has also been contributing factor, as did the County’s insistence that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. Land use development decisions were required to have consensus before they could be finalized.

          While Tysons has much greater challenges than the R-B Corridor, most remain hopeful that, in 30 years, Tysons’ redevelopment will be even more successful. Tysons does present much greater challenges. Tysons lacks a grid of streets. Constructing one is extremely expensive. Tysons is not blighted; it’s extremely successful today. Many parcels will not be redeveloped for many, many years. Tysons may not “click” as early as the R-B Corridor.

          Tysons is not narrow. Much of it will remain a suburban office park for a very long time. Also, it’s large size will not produce the easy transit gains experiences by the R-B Corridor. The overhead Silver Line and the many large roads (Beltway, DTR, Routes 7 and 123) split Tysons unlike the R-B Corridor. Tysons is challenged.

          However, Fairfax County has now reformed the planning/implementation process by bringing all stakeholders to the table. That will help bring consensus and broad support for changes in Tysons.

          Also, of note is the expectation that Tysons will attract an older demographic than the R-B Corridor.

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            These are good comments but they require elaboration. And there are important lessons to be learned as one contrasts Tyson Corner development with Arlington R/B corridor.

            First, let me say that Tyson Corner is a monumental failure. Particularly so when you measure its potential against its achievements. Its benefits versus its harm is heavily weighted towards harm. Perhaps one of the first rules of 21th century is first do no harm. And Tyson Corner is the poster child for bad planning harming itself and all others within range.

            Consider the harm Tyson’s has wrought, for example:

            The first round of development in Tyson’s that was begun in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80 has worked to maim the future of the future inside Tyson’s for generations to come.

            The faulty early and later development of Tyson’s Corner has also closed down interstate travel in and around Tyson’s Corner in all directions for decades. The damage to the entire region and its peoples is beyond calculation.

            In addition, by outflanking and cutting off other older communities from their transportation assets, Tyson’s Corner has heavily damaged those communities instead working synergistically to enhance the wealth of its neighbors.

            This damage caused by Tyson’s bad planning is everywhere to be seen. Long ago this damage infected Tyson’s closest neighbor, Vienna, Va. Then it infected Arlington County with a vengeance, emptying out its old downtown. Next Tyson’s faulty development cut off and isolated Reston and Loudoun from Arlington, Downtown DC, and Maryland.

            Now now Tyson’s Corner’s faulty as built planning throttles Loudoun’s chances at healthy long term growth. Its also been distorting and twisting Prince Williams growth decades too.

            In short, Tyson Corners growth carved into stone land use patterns that went to war against its neighbors and, to a very surprising degree, it’s still waging that war, imposing huge losses and costs to all concerned, whether they be active participates, innocent bystanders, and others from distance places simple trying to past through northern Virginia.

            How did this happen? This post will be continued today.

          2. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            To continue above comment:

            Both RD Corridor and Tyson’s renaissance began in the 1960s. The circumstances of each were very different from the other.

            Arlington was riding its third modern wave of growth. The first began in the late 19th century when the first electric trolley drove over the Aqueduct Bridge into Rosslyn. Savvy businessmen going back to Geo. Washington and Georgetown and Alexandria Grandees had been playing this game since the 18th Century, but now visionaries saw a new opportunities. They envisioned growth expanding from riverside Rosslyn up the hill and back into Arlington (then part of Alexandria). The same was happening to Georgetown across the river.

            At least one major investor brought from farmland atop the Rosslyn hill all the way back to what is not the Arlington County courthouse. WW1 reinforced this inland growth. Folks took the trolley across into DC to work in government jobs and commerce and shop the cities grand avenues. By the 1920s inland Arlington had grown in political clout to the point that it forced its separation from Alexandria, into its own county. The long rivalry between competitors forced this separation

            WW11 put Arlington on steroids. Post WW11 was Arlington’s Golden Age. The Pentagon was build. The county even had its own outer beltway. Glebe Road that encircled the county’s backside built Arlington’s new downtown. The road ran from Chain Bridge over the Potomac on the north to Alexandria City on the south. This outer beltway built as a spindle core downtown for Arlington from Ballston at Glebe Road to Rosslyn town on the north, across the Potomac River from DC.

            During this period, however, Rosslyn lagged. A hodgepodge of pawnshops, liquor shops, and other uses of low repute, festered until dramatic change arrived in the 1960s. An interstate across the new Roosevelt Bridge flooded cars into Arlington. Congress decreed the disbursal of federal agencies out of DC and into private buildings, shifting the Feds from landlords to tenants. Rosslyn suddenly was ground zero.

            The stage was set for phenomenal and historic growth.

            To be continued.

  3. accurate Avatar

    I absolutely LOVE Randal O’Toole. I read his blog all the time. Again, rail (like so many liberal dreams) sounds good until you get into the details, then the wheels come off (usually in a fairly major way). Gotta hand it to Art Guzzetti, it takes either guts or brain damage to go a gun fight with a knife, however in this case sounds like he forgot the knife too.

    1. The realist Avatar
      The realist

      Love O’Toole for what, for being a highly paid liar? The USA is already missing 100,000+ miles of rail line.

      You don’t expect the road in front of your home to exist on profit or loss basis. So why do you want to subject railroads to economic falsehoods?

  4. you know……. passenger rail overland rail and urban rail is not only a fixture in socialist europe, but Japan, China, India, … well really countries all over the world .. it’s a standard modal means.

    and nowhere that I know of (except maybe in Japan) does it operate solely on farebox.

    it’s treated as necessary basic infrastructure and service.

    We don’t say we “subsidize” law enforcement or fire and EMS or schools.

    none of them operate from “farebox”.

    public roads do not operate from “farebox” (tolls)… and people absolutely hate farebox roads… with a passion…

    we collect a sales tax in Va for transportation. It provides more than a third of the revenues for roads. why is that not a “subsidy”?

    1. In other countries rail is a standard mode, yes, but only because these systems have the key element missing here in the states: speed. Building true high speed rail in the U.S.- to the point where people would opt to ride trains instead of buses- would be throwing good money after bad. The infrastructure just isn’t there to make it work.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Do you believe that the tube in London, the Metro in Paris or the subway system in Tokyo are better than Washington’s Metro system because their trains run faster? I’ve ridden on all four of those systems and that doesn’t seem right to me.

        1. I’m talking about overland passenger rail, not subways.

          1. but typically JohnS the folks who oppose high speed rail oppose transit and subway also – right?

          2. DJRippert Avatar

            Ok. Fair enough. That wasn’t clear from the context of the article – The specific topic of debate was the federal New Starts program, which doles out some $2 billion a year to communities building new fixed-guideway transit systems (heavy rail, light rail and street cars).”

          3. all modes of transit – whether urban tubes or high speed rail are opposed on the same basis – that they cannot operate solely on farebox and thus are deemed as cost-ineffective… wasteful, not financially sustainable, etc.

            But no other country on the globe looks at transit that way.

            in every country – it’s viewed as a needed public infrastructure – like roads or electricity or police or schools.

            we’ve gotten to this point because we believe a myth – that highways pay for themselves – therefore other modes should also.

            the only highways that truly pay for themselves are tolled and many if not most of the folks who believe highways pay for themselves absolutely hate toll roads believing that once the initial construction is paid for – the highway is paid for. the operation and maintenance and eventual re-paving and rehabilitation is not considered a cost.

            so we go through these discussions about how much the silver line will cost initially, how much it costs to operate – and long term how much it costs to maintain it.

            but we never do that – with, for instance, I-95 or I-495…

            we DO , do that with the CBBT a 17-mile bridge/tunnel system and the costs to build, operate and maintain it are quite visible.

            but take I495 around Washington. How much did it cost to build it , continue to operate it and maintain it?

            would we consider the replacement cost of Woodrow Wilson Bridge a “capital” cost ?

            what’s a good estimate?

  5. Breckinridge Avatar

    Larry has a point (darn, that hurt to admit.) Public transit is a public good and some level of subsidy it to be expected. But it has to be rational and rail is often beset my irrational exuberance. There is too much duplication and overlap, leading to empty buses and trains. Example: As much fun as it is dodging (mostly empty) GRTC buses in Richmond, now we get to content with full size (mostly empty) VCU buses. What am I missing here? Why wouldn’t it make more sense to just give VCU students a GRTC pass, make sure the routes fit their needs, and then they could all ride half full buses?

  6. re: ” The infrastructure just isn’t there to make it work.”

    catch 22 – we can’t make it high speed because it would not be covered by the “farebox” and therefore we’d have to subsidize it.


    re: rational rail …. interesting phrase.

    not sure exactly what it means… in the context of the other services and infrastructure that we provide via “subsidy” and not “farebox”.

    but I don’t disagree with Breckinridges central point….

    we do not approach transit modes as a single entity seamless system – each type of transit seems to have different operators with different missions and different funding.. and they DO overlap and that not only wastes money but it results in gaps in service because the overlaps eat up resources leaving the gaps without resources.

    so we do not approach transit as a seamless service that actually complements other modes and that hurts it with people that are on the fence.

    and I admit that as long as transit seems to compete against itself, I cannot see it as a cost-effective service ( but it will never achieve self-supporting service with farebox only – we have to judge it like we would other essential public services – such as law enforcement, EMA, schools, libraries and roads (which are subsidized also).

    In fact, if all the roads were toll roads, transit probably would be a whole lot more popular and then you COULD judge it in terms of farebox.

  7. re: ” And he got taken down like a baby antelope.”

    just curious –

    how do the American Dream folks feel about toll roads?

    how about Commuter Rail?

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    What really happens when cowardly lions try a two one one ambush on an antelope who won’t be intimidated ….

    1. I noticed at the end, the Lions decided to hang around a while… not good.

  9. According to a U.S. News analysis, the 10 U.S. cities with the best combination of public transportation investment, ridership, and safety are:

    1. Denver-Aurora, Colo.

    2. New York-Newark, N.Y.-N.J.-Conn.

    3. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.

    4. Boston, Mass.-N.H.-R.I.

    5. Portland, Ore.

    6. (tie) San Jose, Calif.

    6. (tie) Salt Lake City, Utah

    8. San Diego, Calif.

    9. Seattle, Wash.

    10. Honolulu, Hawaii

    Other major cities that came close to making the cut were the Washington, D.C., metro area, at No. 11; San Francisco, Calif., at No. 13; and Chicago, Illinois, at No. 14. Though all three of these systems had relatively high ridership and public investment, they all also experienced far more safety incidents–such as collisions, derailments, and fires–per million trips than the cities in the top 10.

  10. Everything is relative. No one is saying that highways pay for themselves, however, a large portion of highway funding is through the gas tax. When this revenue is diverted to other modes such as rail, then we ought to ask: 1) is transit plan xyz a worthwhile investment?, and 2) will people use it? If the answer is no then I believe we should spend the money on the highway system since there is a clearly demonstrated need for the funds. In America the automobile is king, like it or not. Just because other countries view rail as necessary infrastructure does not mean that the U.S. needs to adopt this mindset.

  11. polite questions: “why do we use the word “diverted” especially when more than a third of revenues in Virginia come from the general sales tax?

    do we use “worthwhile investment” in any real sense with roads ?

    if there is a “clear need” for roads, why is it assumed that any/all roads are by default “worthwhile investments” and when there is a “clear need” for
    transit/rail – the default is that they are not “worthwhile investments”?

    Isn’t auto king – because of our chicken/egg logic that roads are “worthwhile investments” and rail/transit are not?

    serious question: do we have any idea at all how much it costs to operate and maintain I-495? wouldn’t that be a start towards comparing the two modes in terms of how much is invested to move people?

    I’m a pragmatic person and roads are indeed king and the preferred mode for most people even those that “like” transit/rail but right now we treat them differently in terms of the costs of operation and we assume no matter what we pay for roads, it’s worth it but not so with transit/rail… we view those expenditures as essentially wasted – and yet around the world, the “mindset” is that they are a valuable and worthwhile investment.

    where is the objective approach for us?

    one basic approach MIGHT be to see how much it costs to move one person person one mile via road, transit, and rail… and for each mode, include all costs but keep them in category of construction, operation, maintenance, etc.

    If we had high-speed rail up and down the eastern seaboard, how many less
    people would be trying to make their way through the washington region from one eastern seaboard origin to another eastern seaboard destination?

    Most of all – I think we HAVE To WANT TO DO an honest apples to apples comparison and we don’t. we have built-in prejudices that drive us to subjective judgements.

    1. “If we had high-speed rail up and down the eastern seaboard, how many less
      people would be trying to make their way through the Washington region from one eastern seaboard origin to another eastern seaboard destination?”

      Good question. But I’d sure like to have an idea of what the answer is before Uncle Sam starts spending money. But then, I want to see cost/benefit analyses for all road and projects.

      Will people get out of their cars? I’ve lived on the East Coast for almost 29 years. Yikes! I never drive to New York or Florida. I usually take the train or a bus to New York City and fly to Florida. I’ve driven to New Hampshire through NYC or north of it many times. I’ve driven south to Richmod, Norfolk, Va Beach, N.C. and S.C. many times. I’m not sure my driving patterns would change with the availability of high speed rail.

  12. PhilBest Avatar

    Here are some realities re transport modes.

    The cost of roads is about 2 cents for every person mile of travel on them. The motorist happily pays their own way on the vehicle, the fuel, the repairs, the insurance – which is some 20 cents upwards per mile.

    There would not be a single public transport system in the world that would come under 10 cents per person mile travelled on them for overall cost, and the very few that actually cover their costs in fare revenue are approximately this efficient.

    Of course 10 cents per person mile of travel is a nice low cost. But MOST commuter rail systems in the world are at least 20 cents, equivalent to the cost of an efficient small car that can go anywhere. The most mismatched rail based public transit systems can cost more than an SUV per person mile of travel – “investments” in systems like this is sheer lunacy.

    Where rail based public transport systems make economic sense (eg in “global” cities), they would be able to pay their own way via fare revenue and contributions from the benefiting property owners. Everywhere that rail based public transport systems make economic sense, riders incomes are well above national average, and their trip destinations are some of the highest value property on the planet.

    If the costs cannot be covered this way in a given city, the transit system should be 100% bus-based, end of story. There is no social justification whatsoever for subsidy to rail based public transport from nationwide taxpayers, nationwide or regional car drivers, regional taxpayers or local taxpayers, or local bus riders.

    It is “cargo cultism” to assume as some activists seem to, that putting in a rail based public transport system will “make our city more like London or Hong Kong or New York”. Those cities are what they are because they are clusters of economic activity of a kind of which there are less than a dozen worldwide. They should all have paid for their own mass transit systems, but in some cases, NYC especially, a massive rent-seeking grab has been successful at the expense of car drivers paying petrol taxes.

    The property rent-seekers dislike buses because their routes can be changed. They do not care if the cost of a rail based system is $5 for every $1 of benefit as long as they are capturing the $1 and paying less than $1 of the $5.

  13. The realist Avatar
    The realist

    Randal O’Toole’s entire agenda based on fraud, roads are not subjected to economic tests. Even he has admitted that roads are there regardless of economic conditions.

    There are examples of private for profit operated passenger rail in other parts of the world. Here’s one from Cambodia.

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