Platitude-Free Punditry about Rail Transit

It was a rare pleasure to read the lead editorial of the Richmond Times-Dispatch today about passenger rail. The piece, undoubtedly penned by Barton Hinkle, dispenses with the usual platitudes and takes a hard look at the economics of this oft-touted solution to Virginia’s transportation woes. As the writer unsentimentally observes:

When all the capital and operating costs of both mass transit and automobile travel are accounted for, rail travel is almost four times as expensive as vehicular travel. In 2002, rail cost 82 cents per person per mile; vehicular travel cost 21 cents, even after factoring in government spending on roads. Travelers might be willing to pay that higher cost in return for conveniences such as briefer commute times, diminished highway congestion, and less road rage. But passenger rail travel in most of the U.S. — and certainly in Virginia — promises few such offsets.

The problem, as the T-D observes, is that there is insufficient density in Virginia to economically support mass transit. “Mass transit works in places where people are, well, massed together.” Like New York (26,000 people per square mile), Chicago (13,000 per square mile), Washington, D.C. (9,300 per square mile). Rail does not work well in places with suburban densities of less than 1,000 people per square mile. Here’s why:

Low density rates force transit systems into an unhappy tradeoff: Either they maintain numerous stations along their routes, which slows travel speeds considerably, or — for the sake of greater speed — they maintain just a few stations separated by large distances. The latter option not only makes use of the system inconvenient to most potential passengers, it also requires them to drive to the stations — which largely defeats the point.

Impeccable logic. My only quarrel with the editorial is this: Just because average density may be too low for transit, that doesn’t mean Virginia jurisdictions can’t support rail transit. The key is placing islands of high density around transit stops, along with mixed uses, intermodal connections and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. In the absence of appropriate zoning, however, rail as a commuting option is a waste of money.

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5 responses to “Platitude-Free Punditry about Rail Transit”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I’ll buy the 82 cents for rail but 21 cents for vehicles is far too low. I’d guess a better price including all externalities is at least 70 cents and maybe close to 80 cents. Buses are in the same ball park.

    Even my airplane project worked out cheaper than rail.

    But even if autos cost twice as much, they are still a better deal than rail, and especially Metro because they offer a higher class of service, more convenience, more freight handling, and all things considered, they are faster.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    The key is placing islands of high density around transit stops, along with mixed uses, intermodal connections and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

    But then you get back in the business of wealth transfer to those who own the station sites, funded by the enormous subsidies that rail always takes – even in New York.

    I’ve said before, that for what it would cost to build and operate the railroad, the stations and the intermodal connections (parking garages) you could just build office parks at those locations and give the space away, free, to anyone that wanted to do business there.

    That would eliminate the need for the train to take people to their work sites, and they wouldn’t drive any farther than they would to get to the train.

    You could still throw in all the other amenities you mentioned.

  3. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    The elephant in room, at least as far as the extension of Metrorail through Tysons and to Dulles, is the impact on traffic. Here’s what the Commonwealth of Virginia states will happen to traffic as a result of spending at least $4 billion to build the Silver Line.

    I-66 Eastbound (Rte. 29 to Dulles Connector Road) No build in 2025 – LOS F; full construction of Silver Line in 2025 – LOS F. (All time periods are the same.) Dulles Connector Rd Westboud LOS F – LOS F. I-495 Northbound Route 7 to Route 123. LOS E – LOS E.

    Dulles Airport Access Highway at Route 7. LOS D – LOS C. Dulees Toll Road Eastbound Hunter Mill Road to Reston Pkwy. LOS F – LOS F. Route 50 Fairfax County Parkway & Route 28 (no travel direction specified by VDOT.) LOS F – LOS F.

    Route 28 Dulles Toll Road and Route 606 (no direction specified by VDOT.) LOS D – LOS D. Dulles Greenway Eastbound Route 772 to Route 659. LOS F – LOS F.

    Source: Final EIS, page 6-25, Table 6.2-2.

    The elephant will cost $4 billion dollars, before cost overruns. How is it in the public interest to spend that much money to produce these results?

  4. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    The IRS rate for automobiles is over 40 cents a mile. Parking is extra. With daily parking in Richmond ranging up to $18, you can afford a lot of bus trips. Of course, if you live in the new down town condos, you can walk to most destinations.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    How is it in the public interest to spend that much money to produce these results?


    Thank you. This is the question I have been trying to bring into focus for all these months. Where is the benefit? We are going to spend billions to make millions for a few, and the rest of us will suffer.

    If you live in the new downtown condos you can walk to the destinations that are within a mile, providing you don’t need to carry anything home. For every other destination outside of a mile (which are far many more than inside a mile) you need some kind of transportation.

    Those condos are going to cost more for less space, and space that is less usable, unless you think living consists only of sitting breathing, and sleeping.

    You can take a lot of bus trips for $18, unless you count your time at $6.00 an hour, then you can’t take quite so many bus trips. And then, only if the bus happens to start and stop within a mile of your start and stop. If you are physically able to walk a mile, and don’t mind the weather.

    The true social and sytematic costs of cars is far more than 40 cents a mile. And, yes, your office space in Richmond is going to cost around $20 a sq ft, and your parking space is going to cost around $2 a square foot, at those daily rates. (Probably you can get a monthly rate for less.)

    Now, what do you suppose a bus costs, per square foot? A new GM hybrid bus is around $2000 per square foot, and the number of passenger miles delivered per hour is less than what the equivalent cost in autos can deliver. You could build new office space near your home and give it away, for what it costs to buy and operate the bus.

    In other words, once you evaluate the true total social costs of each system for the equivalent quality and value of service, then trains cannot compete. Not in any way shape or fashion, and buses can only compete if you build enough streets for them to run on relatively freely.

    If you want to make that kind of cost argument, then make the whole argument, not just a little piece of it. Because, whatever we decide to do, once we put it in the real world we will get not only the benefits but all the related disbenefits that happen as a result of changes to the whole system.

    If I save $200 a month in parking but my in town condo costs me $400 a month more, then I’m not too impressed.

    Say it costs $7000 a year to own and operate my car, and by using metro I can save $1200 of that but the alternative costs are $600, so a net savings of $600. That lowers my auto cost from $19.17 per day to $17.53 per day, assuming I still need a car to go everyplace else. But, that $600 in alternative costs is only one third of what the metro trip really costs. So, somewhere myself and a lot of other people who don’t ride Metro are coughing up an additional $1200. So the real costs are an additional $600 per year to provide me with the option of riding metro.

    And that is the problem that is ignored in Wamsleys statement. These are not alternative modes of transit, they are additional and optional modes. But the argument is made that we can’t afford to run the auto system, so what would ever make us think we can afford to run both systems?

    Don’t get me wrong, I happen to believe that it IS in our interests to do this. But it is NOT in our interests to kid ourselves about the costs or the results.

    If we make idiotic arguments in favor of the things we want, then what happens is that we look like idiots and don’t get what we want. If we want to do this, then we need to wise up and make ana rgument that makes sense, and do it in a way that makes sense.

    I’m not sure just what that is, but the current arguments are nonsense, and that is the issue raised by TMT’s question.

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