Why Public Transit Can’t Make Money

I’m a big believer in the potential for mass transit to help alleviate traffic congestion, but I’m not blind. Heavy rail, light rail and buses are huge money losers. Not only do they fail to pay their capital costs, they don’t even pay their operating costs.

Is that a problem intrinsic to rail and buses, or does it reflect the inability of government to run business enterprises? For a case study, let’s look at the situation at Washington Metro, where labor costs have gotten so out of control that even Washington Post editorial writers are outraged:

SOMETHING IS wrong at Metro when almost 9 percent of its $1 billion operating budget goes to pay overtime to employees. Something is wrong when Metro, whose workforce is comparable to the Los Angeles transit system’s, has at least 10 times as many workers clearing $110,000 a year, thanks largely to profligate overtime policies and practices. And something is wrong when some Metro employees receive overtime pay even while on vacation based on the fact that their usual workweek includes extra hours on the job…

Something is out of whack when one bus driver was able to command $143,000 last year, an income approaching that of the chief operating officer of Metro’s bus division.

Until the Metro gets its act together, Virginians should be very leery of investing more than $5 billion in the Rail-to-Dulles expansion of Metro heavy rail. Not only are the project’s up-front construction costs seemingly escalating with no end in sight, Virginia taxpayers (or Dulles Toll Road commuters) face the prospect of subsidizing an out-of-control Metro workforce.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


59 responses to “Why Public Transit Can’t Make Money”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    If overhead for a new employee is 30 to 50% then 9% overtime (based on labor costs) might not be so bad. But based on total budget it is probably terrible.

    It is unlikely that transit’s problems can be overcome by labor reform alone. However, Winston and Shirley studied this issue in their book. As I recall, they concluded that the closer the politicians were to the operations, the more likely there was patronage, and high labor costs. Certainly it is part of the problem.

    The real problem is that the cost efficiencies of large vehicles are overstated. Trains and buses are no where near as efficient as we woul like to believe. Part of the reason is related to labor. They need operators, and they need more frequent maintenance, and inspection to make sure the maintenance was done, and done properly. The benefit shows up in safer operations.

    But the vehicles themselves do not actually save all that much money, unless they are running slam full. Metro buses cost $.85 cents per passenger mile to operate, and they get all the same road subsidies as autos get, more even.

    That means we can only afford to run them on the very best routes, where they will stay full. As long as we design our routes around twice daily commuting, and use transit as a peak load operation, it will always be expensive, inconvenient, or both.

    On the other hand, if we use transit only where it makes sense, we will have a lot less transit, but a lot better transit where we have it. Right now, that answer is politically unacceptable, even if it is economically correct.

  2. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Eliminate the parking subsidy and buses become much more competitive. etc. etc. etc.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Eliminating the parking subsidy, if you can find one, does not make buses more competitive, or better transport in any way. What it does is eliminate the competition: hardly a free market approach.

    Except for on street parking, most parking is paid for with private funds by entities that operate the parking for their own benefit.

    Where exactly, is this subsidy? sure, you could make employer provided parking a taxable event, but so what? It would be a small additional cost, and raises would rise to cover it. You wouldn’t suggest making employer provided Metro passes taaxable. And then there is still the mass amount of vendor provided parking.

    Finally, as long as you are taking away subsidies, take away the bus subsidy, while you are at it, and then see how competitive they are.

    The right thing to do is try to (legitimately and honestly) find the right balance, without cooking the books in any one (politically favored) direction.

  4. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim Bacon:

    Better management of regional shared-vehicle systems by a rationally structured regional governance structure would go a long way toward many of the problems that plague systems like METRO.

    However, there will never be effective shared-vehicle system unless there is a balance between the travel demand generated by the settlement pattern and the system capacity.

    There is no way to “fix” by tinkering a system that runs most of the trains leaving most of the stations most of the time essesentially empty.

    As Jim Wamsley and you have pointed out, reducing subsidies on parking and private vehicles will help. So will removing politics-as-usual from the operations.

    Nothing will “solve” the Mobility and Access Crisis without Fundamental Change in station-area land uses so that there is a balance between functional settlement patterns and system capacity.

    That will require Fundamental Change in governace structure.


  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ed, Quite right, solving Metro’s labor problems won’t make Metro viable. It only makes it less un-viable. But it’s part of the equation. Out-of-control labor costs give ammo to the proponents of untrammeled automobility. Out-of-control labor costs undermine political support for transit — even when it could be viable if it were designed around balanced communities.

    Jim, You’re right, too. Parking subsidies amount to automobility subsidies. One of our problems is that there are so many subsidies, many of them invisible, that it is all but impossible to figure out which transportation modes are truly more efficient and under what circumstances. In that regard, I sympathise with Ray.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Let me ask.

    Suppose we did away with METRO Rail and went entirely with Bus Rapid Transit but the drivers still earned 100K … would the costs be any different?

    re: parking subsidies

    I agree with Ray – the company considers the parking spot to be a cost of doing businesses – folded into it’s budget.

    But what the company is doing is imposing external costs for the rush road capacity that car will need on it’s way to/from that parking spot.

    The company pays nothing for that capacity and the employee pays a fraction of what it actually costs to provide that capacity.

    When you charge each driver – the reasonable pro-rata cost to provide them with rush hour capacity – this problem will go away.

    But Metro… the 100K bus drivers is bizarre. I know a friend who just got hired as a starting pilot for Southwest – flying 757 jets and his salary – 100K….

    perhaps we should let Southwest operate Metro.

  7. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    11:06 Ray Hyde
    “Most parking is paid for with private funds by entities that operate the parking for their own benefit. Where exactly, is this subsidy?”

    A merchant that supplies parking only for customers is using parking as a lost leader. Lost leaders are products that are distributed below cost to attract customers. Selling something below cost is subsidizing it.

    A subsidy is a subsidy, whether it is private or public.

    Don’t confuse a competitive “free market” with a “laissez-faire market” where monopoly practices eliminate competition.

  8. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    {heavy sigh} Folks, a driver is required for rail only if irt is grade level. Elevated rail does not require a driver and it can be automated. Todya, roughly 55% to 65% of operating costs are the cost of paying humans to drive and man rail. Automated rail is a huge solution for reducing labor costs.

    However, a HUGE secret is that the Socialist and Government-is-best crowd have adopted a strategy of “Welfare-to-work” that targeted public transit as a social experient for “providing good paying jobs” to the prior welfare class “labor pool”.

    Of course the answer is that Governmet seeks to grow government.

    Privatizing the rail system would go a long way to reducing labor costs. But then the political machines would not have a ready suppy of “good jobs” to “use” to give the impression that they have weened folks off of “welfare”.

    Elevated and automated rail can run 24/7 365 and it does not go “on strike” – it does not demand higher “healthcare benefits”.

    The root problem is not that there are not known soilutions for reducing operating costs, but that politicians and dare I say it – Democrat party race-oriented preferences are key factors that prevent lower wages for the transit-oriented workforce.

    Further, unmanned trains don’t create another block of voters inclined to vote for more government spending … if you catch my drift.

    To better understand that magnitude of the problem, study the racial make up of our regional Transit provider, HRT.

    Take a good look at the racial percentages of our region – and then look at the racial composition of the staff of HRT.

    Wow – if the opposite were true the NAACP would be filing law suits and demanding criminal investgations.

  9. Henry Ryto Avatar
    Henry Ryto

    One of the agency’s that merged to form HRT, TRT, started out as a private company. After a few years, it was forced to throw in the towel. Given HRT’s reputation for poor service, a shrewd entrepreneur would start a competing company – if he thought he could make a profit off of it. 🙂

    Obviously labor costs are a big factor. Many lament HRT being unionized not only for the costs, but the inflexible work rules the labor contracts brought. For example, drivers are required to be paid for 40 hours a week work even if they don’t work a full 40 due to lack of services to be scheduled on.

    Part of the cost equation that is easier to contain are the buses themselves. Portsmouth has ordered hybrid buses for the upcoming Portsmouth Loop service; Norfolk is expected to order hybrids as it has to replace it’s NET fleet. While they have a slightly higher purchase price, hybrids have a lower operating cost (mostly fuel savings).

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Why should public transit be expected to “make money”?

    Is there any transit system – worldwide that truly makes money?

    If transit cannot make money or break even – does it mean that transit is unjustifiable?

    I think folks are all over the map on what the purpose of transit is – and how much it should cost (or not).

    We don’t expect schools to pay for themselves nor mental hospitals nor state/national parks nor.. the Vietnam Memorial… etc, etc.

    Roads don’t pay for themselves either. The average 30 mile per trip commuter in the Wash Metro Area pays… around $3 or so to use the roads at rush hour.

    Then in Va – fully 1/2% of the sales tax goes for roads – almost 1/3 of the total budget.

    What if that 1/2% were allocated to Metro/Bus transit instead?

    what would be the difference?

    I’m no big supporter of the typical government approach to providing cost-effective services (not) but again.

    why do we expect transit to pay for itself .. or let’s expand the question to say.. if it cannot pay for itself – and we all agree – then what percentage of subsidy should it have?

    do we have a clue as to what would be a good percentage or an unacceptable percentage?

    Do we have benchmarks for such?

    We’re spending what .. 2 billion dollars for a new bridge over the Potomac and almost 700 million for a single interchange (Springfield).

    Are those “acceptable” costs? Are those projects “cost effective”?

  11. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, you just got overtaken by a silly attack. What are you thinking? Roads don’t pay for themselves? *People* who use roads pay for roads by paying a gas tax. People who ride buses don’t pay a separate bus tax somewhere. They pay their fares, and the rest is subsidized by taxpayers.

    I am not defending *how* the road money is spent. We totally agree that politicians steer billions of dollars into road projects with low returns on investment. The answer is not to subsidize transit in return — the answer is to reform the way money for roads is raised and spent.

    Meanwhile, if we think transit is an indispensable contributor to the transportation system, we must work ceaselessly to make it work more efficiently. Out-of-control labor costs in the Washington Metro must be confronted. Archair route networks in the GRTC must be changed. Transit needs to be equipped with the kind of modern amenities that make it more competitive with riding in automobiles.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    There are an average of 8 parking spaces per vehicle and more vehicles than people to drive them…

    The true value of transit is underutilized except in major cities such as NYC.

    The true value of transit lies in the fact that the storage of vehicles is very expense in a high density land use setting. A superior transit system allows the land require for vehicle storage to be converted to higher and better uses such as housing, office space, retail etc. where land is a premium and people still need movement throughout a city network.

    Think of all the space in an area required for vehicle storage and convert it to taxable, livable places of commerce. This is the true value of transit and in most circumstances it is underutilized.

    The automobile will never be able to compete with any transit system in the “maximizing land use density and economic output” arena. The car will win in travel time and flexibility; however, it will create a greater environmental impact, not only by emissions, but the land required to store it.

    The only way to encourage a public good through increased transit use is to offer an incentive to use transit and a disincentive to SOV. This usually is in the form of parking fees and taxes and soon to be congestion pricing.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “People who ride buses don’t pay a separate bus tax somewhere. They pay their fares, and the rest is subsidized by taxpayers.” JB

    Who subsidizes whom can sometimes be hard to tell. The bus rider’s fare certainly covered some of the costs of gas, including the gas tax. Almost certainly the bus rider – like most of us – pays state income and sale taxes, which covers some transportation.

    When I lived in NoVA, I used to get a kick out of folks who said that we apartment dwellers didn’t pay property taxes. Of course, we did albeit indirectly in our rent. True, it was less than a single-family home-owner would pay; but throughout most of that time, relatively few apartment dwellers had children in public schools, a major spender of property taxes.

    When I lived in NoVA, I paid lots of income taxes (no mortgage interest deduction), lots of sales taxes, and other taxes indirectly while renting and using public transportation almost exclusively.

    The big challenge is to get as much efficiency as possible for the money we do spend, and that’s not always an obvious dollars and cents proposition.

    Deena Flinchum

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “But what the company is doing is imposing external costs for the rush road capacity that car will need on it’s way to/from that parking spot.

    The company pays nothing for that capacity and the employee pays a fraction of what it actually costs to provide that capacity.”

    Is that true for the 7-11 that provides free parking in Farmville, too? Or is that a different proposition, since the excess capacity to prevent a rush road situation has been provided by money from Northern Virginia?

  15. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “When you charge each driver – the reasonable pro-rata cost to provide them with rush hour capacity – this problem will go away.”

    What do you suppose will go away if you charge each Metro rider the reasonable pro-rata cost to provide them with rush hour capacity?

  16. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “People who ride buses don’t pay a separate bus tax somewhere. They pay their fares, and the rest is subsidized by taxpayers.” JB

    Exactly, and the same is true for road users. Now explain who are the people that use more of one kind of government service and who are those that use more of another. How much is A paying to support B’s habits, and vice versa?

    Deena is entirely correct: Who subsidizes whom can sometimes be hard to tell.

    When we really have the answers, then I will be willing to listen to this nonsense.

    “The big challenge is to get as much efficiency as possible for the money we do spend, and that’s not always an obvious dollars and cents proposition.”

    You don’t get that by artificially inflating someone else’s costs.

  17. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    The true value of transit is underutilized except in major cities such as NYC.

    Even in new york, transit accounts for less than ten percent of transportation.

    “The true value of transit lies in the fact that the storage of vehicles is very expense in a high density land use setting. A superior transit system allows the land require for vehicle storage to be converted to higher and better uses such as housing, office space, retail etc. where land is a premium and people still need movement throughout a city network.”

    This is simply wrong as a mere glance at a new york street will show. Part of the value of transit is that it allows SOME of the land used for vehicle storage to be used for higher uses. The question is whether that part of the value is covered by an equivalent part of the costs of transit.

    Frankly, I doubt it – even in New York.

    It’s an interesting argument though. Transit overcomes the (some) of the cost of parking by simply keeping the vehicles moving, whether they are full or not. Which is more expensive, a passive parking space, occupied one eighth of the time by a non moving vehicle, or an active parking space occupied (even less than one eighth of the time) by a moving vehicle (operated mostly empty) which must be operated and monitored for safety?

    We are not often confronted with the relatively vast acreage used for parking trains, because they are not in our neighborhood, but those trains do get parked, and while they are parked, they are monitored by security guards.

    Trains also get a parking subsidy. Just like the vendor parking space, (or many employer parking spaces) it is rolled into the cost of doing business. However, since this business covers only about half of its operating costs, the rest devolves directly to us.

    If you choose not to patronize businesses with large parking lots, then you won’t pay any of those costs.

    I don’t see the problem here, and no one yet has explained to me what the parking subsidy is. I’d like to put up some parking, how do I get to collect that subsidy? Where do I apply? What agency puts up the funds?

    I can point to who pays for parking Metro trains and buses (and school buses): the generalized parking subsidy is a little harder to spot.

    Suppose you are a vendor. Who
    would you prefer to cater to, the customer that can afford to drive to your shop, or the one that “chooses” to walk? The one that leaves with a half ton of stuff (as I did this morning) or the one who carries out his parcels?

    New York is a fine place, but let’s face it: it and the places like it are anomalies. Even considering that the majority of people live in such places, they are still a minority of the places there are. We cannot design everything as if it was New York, and even hope to get the most efficiency for the dollar.

    If you don’t believe it, check out the price of an “efficiency” in New York.

    If you want to make a political statement and base it on pseudo economics, at least take a few seconds to consider how your argument works on the flip side.

  18. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “But Metro… the 100K bus drivers is bizarre. I know a friend who just got hired as a starting pilot for Southwest – flying 757 jets and his salary – 100K….

    perhaps we should let Southwest operate Metro. “

    Exactly right. Southwest carries passengers for somthing like 2.5 cents per passenger mile. Metro buses are 85 cents per passenger mile.

    On the other hand, Here we go again, with rotten comparisons.

    What would a Metro driver earn if he worked the same number of hours per month as a Southwest pilot?

    How many passenger miles does a Southwest pilot conduct every month? Probably a lot more than the Metro driver. How many judgement calls does he make every day? Probably a lot fewer.

    We fly airplanes by the number. The pilot knows when he has enough velocity to pull the nose up. He has legions of government employees holding his hand to make sure he has no conflicts when he reaches the intersections. If hew screws up, there is a good chance he will die, and the autopsy will investigate whether his thumbs were broken.

    Bus drivers are mostly on their own, and if they screw up we charge them with manslaughter. They work those long hours to bring in the bucks so they can afford to live where their work is. Assuming the rules are such that they don’t work to exhaustion, I don’t have a problem.

    I knew a pilot who works the east coat to Florida run. He lives in Montana, and commutes to work on the airline for free, yet he is only allowed to “fly” x hours per month.

    Now, tell me again what it is that is bizarre?

    How about this? We pay professional operators according to a percentage of the gross income their passengers earn. If we think that transportation is directly connected to the economy, that people mostly don’t move unless it is to their economic benefit, then this is a way to ensure we get efficiency for the dollars we spend.

    On that basis you might find that metro Drivers and Southwest pilots were all that different. Pilots carry fewer passengers who are well heeled, and drivers carry more passengers of more modest means.

  19. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “*People* who use roads pay for roads by paying a gas tax. “

    Gas taxes are only part of what people pay. People who use roads are, in fact, nearly everybody. The roads we have get paid for by a variety of means. But since nearly everyone uses the roadsn nearly everyone who uses the roads pays for them through a variety of means, as Deena suggests.

    On the other hand, those that use transit are a minority, and their costs are supported by everyone else, over and above what they also pay for using the roads.

    We can argue that some people use the roads selfishly, that they use roads far mor than they pay for, or that they benefit disproportionately by causing other to use the roads, like Wal-Mart.

    As Deena points out, who subsidizes who can be hard to tell.

    But when it comes to transit, it is pretty clear that transit is supported (by transit users certainly) but to a far greater extent, and by a far larger number of people, who are primarily road users.

    Suppose the transit supporters got their wish: that suddenly transit was THE mode of transit. Who would pay the subsidies then? Suddenly, they would have to do what they claim auto drivers don’t: pay their own full costs.

    Sure enough, there would be massive arguments over the rate structures. It would be said some users were selfish, gaming the rate structure boards, lobbying for stations top be built near their property.

    The minority of auto drivers would be clamoring to eliminate the transit subsidy. They would demand more alternative modes.


  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Is that true for the 7-11 that provides free parking in Farmville…”

    we keep getting confused.

    Farmville does not have the problem of not enough places – as you often posit.

    Farmville is, in fact, another place – that NoVa employers have not interest in.

    Further – folks confuse what drives Twice Daily Rush Hour traffic and peak congestion that is the direct issue for most folks when discussing the “problem”.

    It is not 7-11s. It is not Targets.

    It is, in fact, the thousands of cars that twice every day crush onto the roads to get to – not 7-11s but their jobs.

    Each employer pays it’s employee a salary AND .. often provides free parking… but neither the employer nor the employee pay for the rush hour road capacity that is required to provide that employee the mobility they need to get between home and work.

    If they did pay ENOUGH – then there would be ENOUGH road capacity.

    The gas tax is first of all not enough.. for road construction/maintenance for ordinary roads NOT used at rush hour.

    Rush hour capacity in urban environments is much, much more expensive to provide and yet folks who use that very expensive infrastructure pay no more to use it than someone pays to use a remote rural road.

    The impending move of Fed employees to Belvoir is an excellent example of the known impacts of the employee/employer home to work – IMPACT on the road system .. AND Fairfax is asking for the Feds to mitigate that impact by coughing up the dollars to add rush hour capacity to the road network.

    My point is.. that when it comes to private employers that Fairfax does NOT do this.

    The issue of the road impacts of new employers is .. a non issue.

    So.. not only is there a double standard but .. it’s acknowledged up front – the rush hour impact that an employers puts on the transportation network.

  21. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “What do you suppose will go away if you charge each Metro rider the reasonable pro-rata cost to provide them with rush hour capacity?”

    as long as they are charged for road-use – no problem.

  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Suppose the transit supporters got their wish: that suddenly transit was THE mode of transit.”

    this is easy.

    let’s take the surface streets underground and make them elevated and we charge drivers the cost for doing so…

    why do we not tolerate rail crossing surface streets .. which would be much cheaper… and yet.. we do tolerate the cheapest way of moving autos… at the expense of transit, ped and bike?

    folks keep talking about trolley’s and jitney’s.

    Do you know why they are not allowed?

    Because private auto drivers would go beserk… right?

    the auto has priority access to mobility – but it does not have to pay for that priority access – it’s presume to be the innate right of automobility.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    Don’t forget to throw in the safety cost of surface transportation at $230B per year in the US or $5.5B per year in VA for death, injury, and property damage.

    The great majority of these crashes take place due to driver error and too many of them…

    How does transit help or hurt this cause to save lives, reduce exposure, and provide mobility to those that can’t drive (poor, elderly, or youth)

  24. Anonymous Avatar

    Ridership on NYC Transit is approximately seven million daily – more than 2 billion annually.

    Number of subway cars: Roughly 6,200.
    Number of train trips: 2,680,573 in 2006.
    Subway car mileage: The fleet traveled 353,728,000 miles in 2006

    Sure you have to park 6200 cars but you could do so in space that was outside your major area of commerce.

    So you are saying that 10% of NYC’s trips are transit… please cite source. That would mean that there are 70 M trips daily… seems a bit high to me…

    New York City has an estimated gross city product of $457.3 billion(2006), larger than the GDP of Switzerland ($377 billion). If it were a country, the city’s economy would be 17th largest in the world, and at $56,000 per person, New York would have the second highest per capita GDP in the world after Luxembourg. The New York metro region’s GMP of $901 billion is larger than the total Gross State Product of every state in the United States except California and Texas. It accounts for 65% of economic output in the state of New York, 75% of economic output in the state of New Jersey and 50% of Connecticut’s economic output.[7]As of 2006 the city is the headquarters of 24 Fortune Global 500 corporations (3rd after Tokyo and Paris) and its metropolitan area is home to 38 Fortune Global 500 corporations (2nd after Tokyo). Over a hundred of the Global 2000 companies have a presence in New York and likewise for the American Fortune 500.

    “We cannot design everything as if it was New York, and even hope to get the most efficiency for the dollar.”

    Way to jump so high flea… the lid is off… Show me your pseudo-economics…

    You pay for the parking subsidy each time you buy a product due to the zoning requirements that make business create enough parking for christmas day… And please explain what parking subsidy the wetlands pay and the Chesapeake Bay payu for increasing the acreage of impervious areas that parking lots create?

  25. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun


    The reason the passenger rail lines are elevated is because the trains can be easily automated, they run along a fixed path. They aren’t making infinet intersection direction changes as cars/POV do.

    Elevating the cars/POVs can be done, but not only are the costs higher, the challenge of automating our cars/POV is far more difficult. We don’t drive a fixed route, like a rail line, we drive a multitude of “fixed routes” getting from home to work.

    If passenger rail is elevated and automated, it removes the risk of collision with other ground-based/grade-level transit (cars, trucks, buses, jitneys, horses, pedestrians, etc.).

    When passenger rail is elevated the requirements for engineering crash-survivable cars/coaches is reduced, thus the cost of the rail system is less.

    Drivers are required for all ground-based/grade-level transit because it can collide with other vehilces on when rail crosses surface roads.

    What is the downside to elevating passenger rail, especially inner-regional rail designed to move commuters from home to work?

    Hint: there isn’t any.

    However … ops, suddenly all those “good paying jobs” go away; jobs that have been used as a off-the-radar form of welfare subsidy.

    Suddenly the patronage aspects go away because those jobs are often controlled by government, not the true private sector.

    Elevate rail can be far more easily retrofitted along existing roadway right of way, thus reducing the need for government to “partner” with “Pubic-Private Partnerships” to condemn private property using the “public use” of a new rail line as justication for taking a lot of private property for politically influential developers to build TOD (Trainsit-Oriented Development).

    Elevated rail reduces the NEED to acquire more land to put the rail lines on.

    Isn’t someone on this thread making a case that cars take up too much real estate?

    Then why isn’t that same person shouting in support of elevated passenger rail?

    Folks, it runs along the existing roadways, thus not taking up anymore “space” then the roadways already there.

    Several reports I have studied place the percentage of operating costs related to the D – R – I – V – E – R – S of passenger/commuter rail – and of course buses (and BRT too) at closer to 60% each year.

    Obviously avoiding the cost of drivers makes good sense.

    Avoiding the use of eminent domain to take more private property off the tax roles for new ground-based rail lines also makes good sense (build UP, not out – i.e. “Smart Growth”).

    Automated passenger rail can run 24/7 364 more easily because it does not require a very expensive human crew to drive it. Thus, the transit operates for more hours, offering more people the opportunity to use it. That’s a good thing too. Shutting down rail service at midnight to six AM to save “costs” during low volume periods reducing the return on investment taxpayers paid for all the public infrastructure required to run a passenger rail line. The main “cost” are the human drivers, not the small amount of electricity a Maglev train would use.

    But … the “empire builders” of government bureaucrats would lose out on the control of all those new government jobs – that being the drivers of transit.

    This is a under-reported reason that transit “leaders” resist elevated and automated inner-city/regional commuter/passenger rail.

    Face it, developers want fixed TOD to enrich themselves. Elevated rail takes away they ability to claim the “nned” to condemn private property for a “public purpose” – meaning new public rail service with grade-level rail lines, not elevated rail along exisiting streets and highways.

    If the only thing travelling along the elevated rail line is a rail car travelling on a fixed guideway, there isn’t anything for the train to crash into.

    No driver required.

    Drivers go on strike.

    Drivers “demand” endless pay increases.

    Driver’s “heathcare costs” increase, thus Drivers “need” higher taxpayer subsidized “benefits”.

    Automated commuter rail service doesn’t have any of these downsides.

    So, isn’t it odd how there isn’t more support for this solution?

    To understand this, ask yourself “who profits more from ground-level rail, than automated rail contructed along existing public right of way?”

    Then you begin to discover why automated, elevated commuter rail is not already up and running everywhere it could be.

    You see, the folks that benefit most from elevated, automated commuter rail service are taxpayers, and they just don’t have enough high paid lobbyists to compete with those other special interests that prefer non-elevated TOD and growing the ranks of more “public employes” as drivers, more “good paying jobs” to dole out to “prefered social engineering” “candidates”, more “public employees” that vote to support more taxes to subsidize expanding “public transit”.

  26. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “The reason the passenger rail lines are elevated is because …aren’t making infinet intersection direction changes as cars/POV do.”

    The reason rail is so expensive is because it has to build grade separations …

    what if the onus was on roads to build grade separations at rail intersections instead?

    In other words .how much would rail cost if it did not have to be eleveated.. and every road crossing had to be.. instead.. elevated to avoid the rail..??

    I know this sounds a bit stupid but think about how tolley’s “work” when mixed with road traffic.. and you might see the point.

    Think about.. why trolley’s were there first.. and then cars.. and then trolley .. taken away… and from then on… trolley’s can’t operate on roadways… because they “interfere” with cars – so you have a very flexible and efficient HOV .. that cannot operate because it “gets in the way” of SOLO vehicles….

    What would happen.. if cars were outlawed from CBDs and trolley’s were the primary mode?

  27. Anonymous Avatar

    Reid said

    “If the only thing travelling along the elevated rail line is a rail car travelling on a fixed guideway, there isn’t anything for the train to crash into.”

    Yes there is.

    Rail cars rear end other rail cars. They crash into each other and they crash into maintenance vehicles, etc.

    Check out this recent deadly elevated rail crash.


    “Twenty-three people died and 10 were injured when an elevated magnetic train ploughed into a maintenance vehicle in north-western Germany.”

  28. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    Q: What would happen.. if cars were outlawed from CBDs and trolley’s were the primary mode?

    1. All costs for moving around woul shift to government because POVs are paid for my their owners.

    2. Constitutional rights to carry guns, a right to privacy and secure in onw’s paper and self are gone, because “public transit” forces us to surrender those rights.

    3. Wealthy people would scream bloddy murder if they were forced to ride with the unkept masses. Are all cars going to be outlawed? Does the Mayor ride public transit to get around? What about rich lawyers, developers? bankers, and pampered social elites? Will they be forced to surrender their limos and personal luxury too?

    4. Do the trollies have the capacity to handle the passenger loads?

    5. I notice you said cars – but what about trucks? Why are businesses excused from using public transit? How do godds and services move around in the CBD?

    6. Crime wwould soar because more wealthy folks would be exposed to criminals. Once crime rises, the costs of more law enforcement is passed onto the taxpayers.

    7. Islamic Terrorists would LOVE this. Awesome. More targets for homicide bombers to attack.

    8. Say goodbye to a lot of tourist dollars. My family and I travel a lot to cheerleading competitions in cities. They have large Convention Centers and hotels. We are not going to drive to the outskirts of some metro-city, then lug all our stuff onto a trolly to get to a downtown hotel, then be forced to place our family at risk of assult to go back and forth to cheerleading competitions. Not gonna happen. Those CBDs can kiss those tourist dollars goodbye.

    9. Quality of life will go down. Being crammed upto over crowded mass transit sucks when compared to watching DVDs in a comfortable POV while slowing moving through CBD traffic.

    10. Shoppers from outside CBDs will avoid shopping in CBDs. Too much hassel to use trollies. Thus, they will no longer eat in the restaurants too.

    Before anyone pooh-poohs events like All Star Cheerleders Competitions, consider Cheersport in downtown Atlanta. 75,000 cheerleaders compete in the heart of the Atlanta CBD. If we can find any available hotel rooms, we try to stay near the Convention Center, across from CNN. Most cheerleaders bring 2 parents, do the math – anyway you slice it that is a LOT of hotel rooms and economic impact to the Atlanta local economy. The taxpayers already dumped hunreds of millions into building these taxpayer funded Convention Centers.

    Ban cars – you can kiss a lot of those tourist dollars good bye.

    BTW – This would also ban taxis too, right?

    Goodbye jobs . . .

    Lastly, automated trains running into other automated trains?? How dumb is that – they are all run by software. I can write a program that will prevent any automated trains from running into anu other authomated trains. That is a non-issue.

  29. Anonymous Avatar

    Reid said

    “Lastly, automated trains running into other automated trains?? How dumb is that – they are all run by software. I can write a program that will prevent any automated trains from running into anu other authomated trains. That is a non-issue.”

    Computers crash. Hardrives fail. The power source fails. An electrical surge fries the whole thing. Yes there are ways to minimize these failures, but how many Space Shuttles have we lost despite how much money spent on redundancy?

    And in the case of the accident referenced above, it was a human error due to a maintenance inspection rail car in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    And what about mechanical failure. The computers are controlling breakdown prone machines after all.

  30. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Reid –

    most of your point-by-point rings a bit hollow..

    goods.. yes.. need to be delivered

    cabs -yes ..in fact ANY vehicle that is HOV…

    The truth remains. If trains operated at street level and had priority… than the infrastructure would be much less expensive – the trips would be quicker – and the operational costs reasonable.

    If roads, on the other hand, had to be elevated – like we say that trains should be – AND drivers had to pay for those elevated roads – electronic tolls you know.. then what would happen?

    I’m not advocating this but I’m pointing out that we all take for granted that roads have first priority.. and then we bang on transit for not being cost-effective.

    Turn the tables – and elevated roads – paid for directly by users – on a per use basis – would be very expensive.. and down below.. bikes and pedestrians could walk and bike all over the place.. and folks could easily and cheaply take transit and trolleys.

    There’s another thread asking why we can’t have more elevated roadways for more pedestrian-friendly CBDs…


  31. Henry Ryto Avatar
    Henry Ryto

    Another point Reid ignores is that elevated rail costs 4 times as much to build as at-grade. I’ll take anti-tax Reid’s advocacy of elevated rail seriously when he supports the large tax increase needed to pay for such.

    Here in Hampton Roads, the debate is over: the at-grade light rail advocates have won. Norfolk’s Starter Line is just formalities short of becoming a reality. I would have prefered a regional BRT system. Some (like Reid) wanted an elevated system. Regardless, we now have to make LRT work.

    For my part, I’ve submitted a plan for a three line system that puts transit before redevelopment. I’m told 2 of my 3 lines are in play. (The alignments were already being considered.) Constructive criticism now means being sure transit comes before redevelopment.

  32. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “re: “What do you suppose will go away if you charge each Metro rider the reasonable pro-rata cost to provide them with rush hour capacity?”

    as long as they are charged for road-use – no problem.”


    I don’t understand.

  33. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “Because private auto drivers would go beserk… right?”

    No. It is because the taxi drivers would go berserkers.

  34. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Let’s get this straight. I do not hae any problem with charging auto drivers their full cost.

    As long as they do not also have to pay part of the cost to support transit riders who do NOT pay their full cost.

    I don’t have any problem with congestion charging as long as it applies equally to transit. n fact, I think transit ought to have some subsidy, to offset its inherent disadvantages, but I think those chares should accrue to the employers, not to the diving public.

    However, I also believe that the end result of congestion charging, and full cost of services will result in more use of what is presently open space, for the construction of “morte places”, because those new places will be economically cost effective.

    Providing that they are not artificially prohibited.

  35. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “elevated rail costs 4 times as much to build as at-grade.”

    So does the elevated housing required to make elevated rail halfway cost effective.

    Someone, please explain to me how the combination of these two expensive alternatives saves us anything?

  36. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “..the at-grade light rail advocates have won. ….we now have to make LRT work.”

    Not necessarily. We could build it, and collect accurate data on what it is “worth”. If it turns out that the continuing cost is higher than any rational rate of return, then we could discontinue it. Turn it into bike paths, or whatever.

  37. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “If trains operated at street level and had priority… than the infrastructure would be much less expensive – the trips would be quicker – and the operational costs reasonable.”

    Show me the system wide rationale for this. I don’t believe it.

    If trains operate at street level and have priority, then it will wreck JB’s calls for more traffic signal timing. It will be another subsidy to trains paid by auto drivers. It may result in More pollution.

    How about this? Have some grade separations paid for by rail and some paid for by auto users. The ratio to be determined by the number of riders, and the costs allocated accordingly.

  38. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “how many Space Shuttles have we lost despite how much money spent on redundancy?”

    I’m sorry, this is nonsense. The shuttle is a fair comparison to transportation in zero ways.

    The failure rate on all large rockets is around two percent, roughly equivalent to our shuttle losses.

    If we had a two percent failure rate resulting in fatalities on our daily commute, or Metro, there would be huge concerns.

  39. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “A merchant that supplies parking only for customers is using parking as a lost leader. Lost leaders are products that are distributed below cost to attract customers. Selling something below cost is subsidizing it.

    A subsidy is a subsidy, whether it is private or public. “

    Oh come on. Who frigging cares,as long as it isn’t abitrarily out of their pocket, and with no recourse or choice. As Larry says, we all have “choices”.

    My hay farm operates at a loss. I “subsidize” not only my hay customers, but the entire community. I would be more than happy if you would go to my county supervisors and complain. Maybe they would let me put a stop to it.

    Without charging me more than my full allocated share of costs.

    Politically, the only thing that matters is public subsidies, and that includes “negative subsidies” of the type wherein the public gets something that they have not paid for.

  40. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “….AND Fairfax is asking for the Feds to mitigate that impact by coughing up the dollars to add rush hour capacity to the road network.”

    No. What they are doing is adking the government ot provide money to move the rush hour capacity.

    What’s ironic is that they are asking them to “move” it from a place where it does not currently exist. And, this is one of the reasons for the move in the first place: the capacity does not exist, and there is no place to put it, or it is too expensive too acquire.

    Look, I’m in favor of transit, where it maes economic sense. I’m in favor of bike trails, where they make sense, Im in favor of autos and trucks, where they make sense. I’m in favor of sharing the costs on a system wide basis for all of the above, on an economic basis. I’m willing to factor in the true environmental costs of all f of the above…..

    But let’s not base it on “made up” numbers.

  41. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Henry Ryto, I’m curious, when you say you’ve submitted a plan for a three-line transit system, to whom did you submit that plan? Clearly, you think Hampton Roads has the potential to support more mass transit. Could you provide us synopsis?

  42. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    If it costs 4 times as much to build grade-separated road/rail – then why is the onus on rail to absorb those costs – and, in turn, be hammered with the accusation that .. therefore .. it is not cost-effective?

    What if the onus were on roads to be grade-separated with rail.. and the onus was on roads for that cost?

    Would folks then claim that roads were not cost-effective?

    Here’s something for Giggles and Grins:

    “During its troubled years of construction and testing in the early 1970s, the Personal Rapid Transit system that snakes through this hilly college town was derided as a fiasco and a waste of money that perhaps should be dynamited rather than finished.
    But now, 32 years after it began operating, the P.R.T. — as most people here call it — is lauded as probably the best answer to the traffic that has found its way to these increasingly popular Appalachian hills.”


    Transit in the Applalachian Hills?

    What a concept!

    and not just transit – Personal Transit – Zoweee!

    This sounds like the ticket folks -Personal Transit for NoVa and TW/HR!

  43. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ray – how can you reconcile your statements that you support transit on one hand but then you are opposed to it operating at a loss?

    which is it?

    I don’t think there is a transit system in the world whose farebox revenues pay for their operation.

    Is your position that .. if the farebox cannot pay for operations that transit should be shut down?

    what I’m looking for … a some kind of self-consistent philosophy because it sounds like on one hand, we are saying that it’s wrong for it to be subsidized but then on the other hand – that you support it.


  44. Henry Ryto Avatar
    Henry Ryto


    I submitted it to Randy Wright and Jim Wood, both HRT Commissioners. The former is LRT’s chief proponent, and he thanked me for it.

    The three lines:

    Line 1: Norfolk NOB – ODU – EVMS – Newtown Road – Virginia Beach Town Center – Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

    It would extend off both ends of the Starter Line. If you can’t make Norfolk NOB – Town Center work, LRT will work nowhere in Hampton Roads.

    Line 2: (Third Crossing) – Norfolk NOB – Military Highway – Newtown Road – Greenbrier (Chesapeake) – Battlefield Blvd. Corridor

    Most of it paralells HRT Route 15, the 2nd busiest bus route in South Hampton Roads, relieving it. Once The Third Crossing is built, it’s multimodal tube would be used to connect to the Peninusla, where their LRT project is now identifying a MOS for a Hampton-to-WIlliamsburg via Newport News line.

    Line 3: EVMS – Jeffry Wilson – Victory Crossing – (Airport)

    The 2nd tube for the Midtown Tunnel would be built wide enough to put a line through to Portsmouth. LRT dovetails nicely with what Portsmouth is trying to do with redevelopment. The Airport extension would be for the proposed new airport on the Suffolk – Isle of Wright line, if it is ever built.

    The most interesting development here transit-wise is HRT’s Univeresal Shuttle. It would provide for 29 foot buses, ideal in the low-density suburbs.

    I ride the bus regularly. Where there is service here, people ride. That leads me to believe if we build it, they will ride.

    Virginia Beach has a Citywide Transit Plan in the works. Stay tuned!

  45. Groveton Avatar


    Great post. Especially your question. “Is your position that .. if the farebox cannot pay for operations that transit should be shut down?”.

    That is, in fact, many people’s position on this board. Why? Because it is to their ecconomic advantage.


    By picking the one place where the urban and urbanizing areas of Virginia need to spend more money and then declaring it a “regional problem” or saying it should be paid for with “user fees”.

    The argument goes like this:

    If the state subsidized transportation in the urban and urbanizing areas there would be less money to transfer to the non-urban and non-urbanizing areas.

    Anything that Northern Virginia, the Richmond suburbs or Tidewater wants should be paid for exclusively by the people whi live there. And that payment needs to be in full – no partial recovery from the farebox.

    However, what the rest of Virginia wants is a God given birthright necessary to:

    a) educate children
    b) support farming
    c) compensate for the decline in Menhaden fishing
    d) etc
    e) etc
    f) etc

    Therefore –

    Transportation is the only thing that should be completely self funded because it’s the one thing that the urban and urbanizing areas desperately need. And if those areas spend more of their existing taxes on transportation there will be less to use to “prop up” low tax rates elsewhere in the state.

    Here’s a counter-proposal:

    No municipality in Virginia should be able to receive any transferred monies for education until that municipality raises its real estate taxes to a minimum of 1.25% of correctly assessed value per year.

    If education is really so important I would expect the citizens of these municipalities to be willing to sacrifice a bit more to ensure the provision of this “critical service” to their children.

  46. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “No municipality in Virginia should be able to receive any transferred monies for education until that municipality raises its real estate taxes to a minimum of 1.25% of correctly assessed value per year.”

    I’d sign on to more equitable taxation – statewide for property taxes. It would be consistent with my position on equity for transportation taxation statewide.

    but for counties that just don’t have the resources – not helping them – to insure their kids decent educations – will hurt all Va taxpayers in the longer run if those kids grow up and cannot get jobs.

    then statewide taxpayers pay higher taxes to provide those who are unemployed or underemployed
    with health care and pensions…. so I think the concept underlying the SOQs is still important.

    I just don’t think we should turn our backs on kids because their parents fail them .. because ultimately they become parents and breadwinners…

  47. Groveton Avatar

    Statewide property taxes sound fine as long as the money raised is used first in the county that raised it.

    And where are these counties that don’t have the resources? I’d appreciate a few names. I’d like to see some names and look at the finances. I believe most of these counties are playing possum. They pretend to be a lot poorer than they are.

    Some county has unemployed people? Get their butts out on road clean up and painting projects. Paint the schools – plaster the walls. Shampoo the rugs in the teachers conference rooms. Plant grass on the athletic fields. Pay them as they go but make them work. You want benefits? You work.

    I’d really like the know the names of the counties in Virginia that are really too poor to pay for their children to be educated.

  48. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “I’d really like the know the names of the counties in Virginia that are really too poor to pay for their children to be educated.”

    Those would, in theory, be the counties that receive state funding to provide the means for meeting the minimum SOQs.

    The state does have a formula for determining how much state funding the county should receive.

    I am all for a more open and transparent process and accountability.

    For instance, I’d like to know the correlation between SOQ funding and SOL scores.

    The problem with funding – anywhere is twofold in my view.

    1. – does the county have sufficient wealth to provide the necessary funding to provide the SOQ staff minimums

    2. – is the money that is spent – spent effectively and is a legitimate measure of that spending – SOL scores?

    There’s more.

    Virginians SOLS as compared to the NAEP proficiency standards are not world-class.

    check out this link:


    and you will see that only 1/3 of Virgina’s 8th graders are judged to be proficient in math and reading.

    You can bet the number is much higher in Fairfax and other similiar districts – and you can bet that the numbers are probably not so hot in the counties that are not as rich as Fairfax…

    so .. I agree that equity of funding is very important but I guess you can classify me as one who supports equitable funding of student education – statewide – as long as the money spent is demonstrated to be effective.

    Education, like Transportation can be a black hole for funding if we gravitate towards political processes and away from performance metrics.

  49. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I think I am consistent. EITHER we have a user pays philosophy and apply it equally, consistently and base the fees on proven measurable costs to all government services which are used disproportionately OR we admit that the function of government is to put the money in a box and spend it as seen fit. I don’t see why we choose to allow Metro to gravitate towards a political process and hold only those things we disapprove of to a user pays disposition.

    IF we think it is OK to operate transit at a loss, that’s OK with me, but THEN we need to give up on all this nonsense about parking subsidies and road users not paying their full costs.

    Overall, I think it would be better if we charged adequately for roads and transit. I don’t think tolls are the way to do it because a) it is an inefficient way to collect money, technology notwithstanding. b) It is spotty: we should have a system that collects from all users. c) It is pretty clear that the money will be siphoned off for other purposes; thereby violating the user pays philosophy. d) In the case of congestion tolls, it strikes me odd that we would charge MORE to the people who actually get less useful service while charging little or nothing to those that have plenty to go around.

    The “user pays” money collected should be used to provide more service. Neither you nor I think we are about to build, or should build more urban interstates, or even more urban streets. You should pay for the service you get, not the service you don’t get. Now, if you build a new lane for congestion charging and pay for it that way, then maybe there is more actual service that the user pays for, just make sure there are no hidden charges that everyone else pays for, like loan guarantees.

    If we did charge adequately, then there would be fewer construction and repair backlogs, and as you point out, the demand would grow more slowly if the service wasn’t under priced. Same goes for transit. So, my position is that I support transit: where it can pay its own way. Anything else is a net drag on society, just as other subsidies are. I also consider negative subsidies the same way: if we claim a public benefit by taking something we haven’t paid for, then that is a net drag on society, too.

    Winston and Shirley calculate that this would mean that many current transit operations should fold because they are a net loss to society (after calculating the values and costs of all the reasonable externalities.) They also calculate that the charges for auto use should increase somewhat, so that auto use is not a net social loss. However, the amounts they calculate costs should be raised are nowhere near the amount that some shrill auto-haters would posit.

    By their calculations the end result would be more mobility and more access for more people at a lower overall cost to society. There would, however, be slightly more auto use. The fact that there would be a drastic cutback in transit and a minor increase in auto use merely reflects the fact that transit is such a small portion of the overall transportation needs.

    I’m inclined to think that if something can’t pay, then it should be shut down. That is a hard decision, as any business owner will say. I think the farm should be shut down, but as long as it loses less than the additional tax I would have to pay if I shut it down (negative subsidy) it will continue to bumble along. It is bad business, and bad public policy, I think, but there it is. The punishment will continue until morale improves.

    BUT, if we decide to pay for transit (or farms or anything else we decide we want); if we can convince ourselves there is some non-market value that we should pay for out of the little black box, administered by a faceless bureaucrat, THEN we may as well admit that the purpose of government is wealth transfer and all we can hope for is that we all get our turn in the barrel, AND THEN we concede that the rules are there to change behavior and accept the fact that people will game the system.

    If that is the case, then we can all quit whining about who is being subsidized for what. As Deena correctly pointed out, we can’t really tell anyway.

    It might be that we are willing to support some things because of non market values, if we can agree what they are and what they are worth. Let’s say we decide to support Metro to the extent of $1000 dollars for every ton of CO2 it prevents (good thing we aren’t pricing by ozone). I’m OK with that, but, it implies that if someone comes to us with a power plant proposal, then we ought to be willing to accept $1000 dollars for every ton of CO2 it emits. If we claim (and can prove) that every house built costs the government a net loss of $2300 a year, then we should be willing to accept any house proposal wherein the owner offers to pony up that price.

    That would be consistent.

    Now let’s look at Metro to Tyson’s. Add up all the fares that will be collected over the next thirty years, and discount them to today’s dollars. That is what the transportation is worth. Maybe it’s a billion dollars. So the question is, what are we buying with the other four billion, and what is that worth?

    The CO2 example is one. We can argue about the value of reduced traffic congestion. (I don’t believe you reduce congestion or CO2: every person that abandons his car for Metro will be replaced by another auto user.) If it was an inner city project we could claim it would offer transportation to people who otherwise would have none, but I don’t think that applies to those traveling to Tyson’s Galleria. We can claim we are going to collect some of that four billion in increased property values form development, but then we have to abandon the argument that roads are bad because they are a godsend to developers. But whatever those non-market things are, we need to establish performance metrics and make sure we get them. AND, we should consider what it is we are giving up that we could have bought with $4 billion.

    Now look at Portland. Portland is planning on spending 25 or 30% of its transportation budget on new transit. If every new resident projected to move to Portland uses it, the system will be able to accommodate only 14% of them. We simply can’t afford to build enough transit to solve our problems that way.

    Look at New York. New York Subway rider ship peaked in 1942, when the fare was a nickel, and it has declined every time fares were increased. One proposal today is to use the proposed congestion fees to make the subway ride free. That would be a splendid example of user pays.

    Now look at Dar es Salaam. “The Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Regional Administration and Local Governments, Mr Mizengo Pinda, has said that establishment of well-planned satellite towns would provide permanent solution to traffic congestion in Dar es Salaam.

    Mr Pinda said yesterday that the towns would also serve as a remedy to mushrooming unplanned settlements and excessive consolidation of inner-city neighborhoods.”

  50. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    whew.. .what a post… 🙂

    I need to plow through it a couple of times but I’ll focus on one concept and that is the idea of user pays vs taxing of which the claim is that it MUST be one or the other.

    I don’t agree.

    I don’t think it ever comes down to a binary choice.

    Basically.. if there is a demand for something that exceeds our ability to collect taxes for it – then in my view – it needs to be done by the private sector.

    Things like prisons, schools, environmental protection, etc, etc do not have the situation where demand is unbounded and the more we provide .. the more demand there is.

    And the problem is pretty simple… if demand exceeds supply – and the only way to meet demand is to increase taxes on everyone and demand is still not satisfied.. then you have a problem that government cannot solve and there needs to be a direct connection between how much you use and how much it costs.

    If we did electricity the way we do highways for instance – we’d have brownouts/blackouts and totally unreliable service – like they do in 3rd world countries that provide electricity as a free or nearly free government service.

    It’s one thing for UPS or Fed Ex to decide they are going to send 3 trucks that are 1/3 empty… as opposed to one that is full but it’s a toally different animal when virtually everyone who commutes does so in a SOLO vehicle at rush hour – and pays the equivalent about $3 in gas taxes to do it.. when they are earning $25 an hour.

    The only fair way to deal with this kind of shortage is to charge the folks that are using the service – a fair and equitable fee – much like we do with water/sewer and electricity.

    Having government raise taxes on everyone no matter where they live or what they drive or when they drive and then diverting that money to places where the majority of folks drive SOLO at rush hour is not only NOT equitable but it will not come close to satisfying demand.. and in fact, encourage more demand.. because you then are giving folks even more for their $3.

    but you’re wrong about congestion pricing.. it works already… and the gas tax paradigm is crippled.

    Raising taxes on electricity or other fuels to pay for more roads is going to run into a hornets nest politically .. worse than raising the gas tax itself.

    I just doubt that raising taxes – is going to fly with most folks anymore.

  51. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I agree. I don’t really think it comes down to a binary choice either. I suspect it is more of a spectrum.

    However, I’m pleased to hear that you agree there are SOME situations where the black box is the appropriate funding mechanism. All we have to do now is differentiate.

    I make the argument because it shows the limitations of the “User Pays” philosophy, and also the value. The either/or part simply means that either it is a philosophy, or else it isn’t, and then it is just another tool. Now we need to decide what tool is best for the job at hand.

    The value of “User Pays” is that it is a useful way of diseecting the problem into its component parts. We just need to make sure we have identified all the users.

    You think that commuters should pay for commuter roads. I think that is partly, and maybe mostly true. But, commuters mean commerce, and commerce means taxes, and that means that the state is a beneficiary: a user. To whatever extent that is, the state has an interest in providing part of the funding. Not all, maybe, but part. After all, the state (us) wants a return on their investment, too.

    I’ve made the argument that frequently there are users who do not pay at all, while there are providers who pay through the nose. I believe a stricter interpretation of “User Pays” would alleviate this inequity.


    Frankly, I can’t figure out what the heck we think we are buying with the Tysons Metro project, over and above what we will collect from fares. I certainly don’t buy the usual half-baked and oft-repeated arguments, but I’m willing to believe there is some additional value there.

    Whether the value of the transportation plus the value of the other (questionable?) benefits is worth the cost is an open question.

    Let’s assume the other benefits are worth the cost. All we have to do is decide who gets the benefits, and who gets the costs. Presumably, the user will pay.


    Now, if four people sit down to lunch, they might get separate checks, one had a salad, one had two drinks, and one had dessert. But if fifty people sit at the table, then you just split the bill.

    The person with the salad might complain, but they would probably appear petty. After all, they knew or could have expected the rules, and they had a “choice”.

    So, Deena is right. At some point it is not worth the trouble or cost to find out who the users are, you can’t really tell who is subsidizing whom, and you might as well split the tab and move forward.


    Finally, there is one underlying, but unspoken precept in the “User Pays” philosophy. It has to be a hands off transaction: the user must freely pay, and the provider must freely accept payment.

    Otherwise, it is either coercion, or stealing.

    That said, I’ll modify it by introducing the concept of rationality. We do have rules. The payer, even if he is not paying freely, should at least be able to see that his payment, along with everyone else in his similar shoes, will leave him better off in the long run than if everybody pays nothing. (“No new taxes.”)

    “Should be able” means he is rational, and “in the long run” means his discount rate is not unereasonable. Given the rules, some people will still be unhappy.

    To help prevent that, our representatives, who make the rules, have an obligation to show, unambiguously, what the discount rate is and how it was figured.

    In other words “User Pays” requires a free market and good information to work well.

    And, since conditions change over time, we should expect the rules to change over time. (Excessive) zoning flies in the face of that idea, since its main goal seems to be to prevent change, sometimes forever.


    Lets not argue over congestion pricing anymore. I agree it has some value, I agree it is probably coming. I just think it is inefficient, inequitable, and the results will be unpredictable. Besides that, it won’t alleviate congestion, but for a few. We will still be stuck with massive congestion, waste, and pollution.

    One way or another, we will have to build our way out. If we cant do it with roads in, then maybe we can do it by building jobs out.

    Someone is going to pay for that construction, I just hope it is the users and other beneficiaries.

  52. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “user pays and gets his/her money’s worth”.

    Ever paid top dollar for a bad movie or a product that turned out to be an expensive paper-weight?


    You don’t necessarily get “more” for paying; Often you merely get to maintain what you have in an environment where the overall cost is going up for everyone.

    It’s like increasing your deductibles so that your overall insurance premium stays even.

    and using your premise – every one of us would have to see and feel the tangible benefits that we get whenever our taxes go up – right?

    see.. you’re perfectly willing to pay a higher gas tax merely on the promise that somehow it might improve things… but certainly not anywhere near a quid-pro-quo transaction…

    but then you put that requirement on tolls….which you say are nothing more than taxes also..


    so which is it?

    with respect to congestion…itself

    the answer to congestion in urban areas is less SOVs and more HOVs.

    It’s really truly dumb to build hugely expensive roadways so that the vast majority of “users” are driving solo vehicles – that they pay the equivalent of $3 a day to do.

    What a bargain!

    until you realize that you get EXACTLY what you pay for which is $3 worth of mobility.

    Want MORE – you gotta pay more.

    That’s the definition of a market.

  53. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “until you realize that you get EXACTLY what you pay for which is $3 worth of mobility.

    Want MORE – you gotta pay more.”

    Exactly. All we have to do is accurately find out who benefits and who pays. As for paying more for the same, it might still be better than paying the same for less.

    The I270/I495 interchange experienced 19 million man hours of delays last year. How many million man hours does it take to construct additional service?

    “the answer to congestion in urban areas is less SOVs and more HOVs.”

    This is obviously part of part of the answer, otherwise slug lines would not be so popular. I think we could do a tremendous amount with door to door and circulator Jitneys, but it just isn’t in our culture, yet.

    But, HOV’s are not free either. There is time and effort and phone calls and computer software coordinating with and picking up – dropping off the other passengers. Then someone changes jobs, and you start all over.

    Eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns, but there is clearly some additional capacity availble this way.

    Fast forward thirty years, when all of this capacity has been used and we find ourselves in substatntially the same congestion regime. Now we are wasting 60 million hours a year at I270 – because we have three people in each vehicle.

    What then?

    Or, we spend a gazillion dollars to reach TOD nirvana and substantially everyone (who can) rides transit. Without the subsidies now provided by auto users, transit riders would wind up being the users who have to pay their own way. It will make the outrageous HOT lane tolls look cheap.

    What then? How and when will you wean transit off of subsidies if you don’t do it now?

    Sooner or later you have to follow the example of Dar es Salaam and Beijing and start planning satellite cities. Otherwise, you get them by accident, like Tysons, and then you have to struggle to retrofit them with services. The good thing about that is that we have a lot more private sector experience in building things than we have in running highways. presumably it would take a lot less government “help”.

  54. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I don’t think we should build hugely expensive roadways. I think we should build more little, cheap, and low speed roadways.

    Think of it as a larger scale version of a more gridlike network.

    I think that three four-lane Potomac crossing would have been better that one twelve lane monstrosity where you mix up and then sort out local and through traffic, for example.

    But mostly, I think you need to break up the agglomerations of businesses that cause congestion.

  55. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Fast forward thirty years,”

    you mean we’d then look like Chicago and New York City and have a much more mature transit system – paid for by roadways congestion and condon pricing?


    I bet my vision is better than yours!


  56. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “paid for by roadways congestion and condon pricing?”

    So you are telling me that thirty years from now we will still be making money by pricing congestion.

    Some vision. I thought the idea was to get rid of congestion, along with its associated waste and pollution.

    And do it in such a way that the user pays for a system that provides congestion relief.

  57. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “a larger scale version of a more gridlike network.”

    what is your opinion on the need for projects LIKE the Springfield Interchange?

    are you saying that Springfield would never have been needed if more grid roads had been built instead?

    ditto.. Wilson Bridge – even though it is the I-95 East Coast mainline?

    Where would you have got the money for all these other projects?

    This is the thing I hear most often – that we oughta build this or we oughta build that… and that the money will.. appear suddenly by magic…


  58. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Springfield Interchange and Wilson bridge are on a differene scale from what I am thinking. Given the larger events in the world, I’m not sure there is anything we could have done differently.

    Springfield Interchange and Wilson bridge are both a result of events which resulted in refusing to complete 95 through the middle of (black) Washington.

    I guess I am a small is beutiful type. I think that the combination of Braddock Road, Route 29, and Route 50 are more usefule in many respects tha I66 which propably cost as much or more money.

    I 95 fro F’burg to DC would be many times improved if there were two or three other roads similar to and in addition tor Route 1.

    All the traffic warning signs in the world are of no use if ther are no useable alternatives.

  59. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “so which is it?”

    I leave it to you.

    Which is it, user pays?, Or road users pay for transit?

    It seamms to me the second part is both what you advocate, and what you abhor.

    The way I see it we have three choices:

    a) We have separate road and transit systems, and each pays their own way. So much for transit.

    b) We We make road users pay their own way, and use the money to subsidise transit. Somuch for “User Pays”.

    c) We admit that wnat we have is a transportation system. We throw out all political agenda driven drivel, and we suport both systems (out of the black box we all pay for) in a way that makes provable sense.

    Bottom line is that c) is exactly equivalent to a).

Leave a Reply