Update on Rail Subsidies

As an update on my rail subsidy post, I saw a relevant post from the Thin Green Line yesterday.  At least, I suppose, transit supporters are honest:

When I talked to Dave Snyder earlier this month about a fix for mass transit in the Bay Area, he told me, "Somehow or another we've got to get more money from driving."

However, I thought this was a hilarious lack of perspective:

...one side effect of the green revolution has been a growing awareness of how much roads cost. I imagine you'd be surprised to learn that building a road"”not maintaining it, just building it"”costs more than $16 per square foot.

I have no doubt that this person, who is a strong light rail supporter, honestly thinks this is a lot of money.  But I did the math in my comments on his post:

$16 per square foot for highway should be considered a bargain. This means that a twenty foot wide two-lane highway is $320 per linear foot.

The Phoenix light rail system cost $1.4 billion (thats building it, not maintaining it) for 20 miles, which at 34,000 boardings per week day is carrying somewhat less traffic than the capacity of a two lane highway. However, it cost $13,258 per linear foot, or 41 times your highway numbers. Which is why highway users easily pay the full cost of their transportation infrastructure through their gas taxes, but transit users don't even come close.

In Phoenix, light rail fare revenues cover only 7% of its operating and capital costs. Which always has me scratching my head when people say light rail is somehow more "sustainable." If running trains requires, as you suggest, draining resources from millions of people just to move thousands, how is it sustainable?


  1. Prof Frink:

    "Which is why highway users easily pay the full cost of their transportation infrastructure through their gas taxes"

    I don't doubt this, but if somebody could provide me with a source that would be great.

  2. Max:

    The light rail supporter only cites what is already in use in Europe. For example, the gas tax in Germany (every cent paid for gas adds 3 cents of taxes: 1.3 € for 1 liter at the moment) pays also for water ways and railroads (about 30 % of the tax). This explains the bad condition of most German roads.

    Also, the new high way fees for trucks is split like this: 70 % road care, 20 % railroad care, 10 % water ways...
    Otherwise the extensive railroad infrastructure wouldn't be possible... it is just a disgrace that it had to be a hidden tax on cars and trucks...

  3. MJ:

    Which is why highway users easily pay the full cost of their transportation infrastructure through their gas tax

    No, not true. The federal share of road infrastructure is paid for with federal fuel tax revenue, but state and local roads are paid for with things like state fuel taxes, sales taxes (in CA), vehicle sales taxes, registration fees and, at the local level, property taxes, special assessments, impact fees and occasionally local fuel taxes.

    Whether these are acceptable arrangements is an open question, but it is important to be honest, lest you put yourself in league with the greens and railfans, who engage in this type of chicanery quite frequently.

  4. Evil Red Scandi:

    I thought 20 feet sounded a bit narrow for a highway, so I looked up some numbers. Minimum lane width for an Interstate Highway is 12 feet, plus you need a 10-foot shoulder on each side. So that's 44 feet minimum; I think most are wider than that. Even if you kick it to 50 feet your point still holds, but it's usually better to get your facts nice and neat rather than give the nitwits rhetorical ammo to shoot at you.

  5. Earle Williams:

    The $16 per foot quote is probably cherry picked to support the original argument. Road construction costs vary greatly depending on the class of the road, road width, proximity to resources, etc. If you're looking at a 2-lane county road then 20' of pavement may be spot on. You wouldn't include the cost of the shoulder in your cost estimate unless you were paving it. Does $16/ft include the cost of grading shoulder, acquiring the right-of-way, and conducting clearing and grubbing prior to construction? Probably.

    Washington state DOT produced a report in 2002 comparing costs to construct a diamond interchange:

    Arizona costs were $1.3M per lane-mile. Using those costs then the cost to build a two-lane highway would have been $492 per lineal foot. That's for an interchange with an overpass.

    A 2009 estimate of $320 per lineal foot for generic road certainly seems viable to me.

  6. Michael:

    Cincinnati wants to build a $125 million 8 mile streetcar loop. So $3,000 a mile seems cheap.

    But those of us opposed to the plan have a great resource. There is a website with the history of electric rail service in the area. It has all the routes, the companies that owned them, and when they went bankrupt. The route the city wants to build once existed and was removed by the city in the early sixties since it was no longer profitable. Which explains why the city expects to get less than 1/3 of operational cost from fares.

    Everything this city has done to "save downtown" and would pay for its self has become nothing more than a taxpayer money pit.

  7. EarlW:

    Certainly, if all the drivers were forced to use it.
    That's the next step. Make it increasingly more expensive to drive.

    Choice is an outdated concept. We'll decide how you should travel...

  8. Brenton:

    Increasing the capacity of one road, or creating one road doesn't mean anything. Vehicles don't just appear and disappear spontaneously on one road. They use many roads. So you also have to pay for increased capacity on other roads. And pay for all of the land that these roads require. And pay for new high capacity intersections. And pay for vast amounts of land to park these vehicles. While ignoring externality costs of things like noise, crashes, congestion from new intersections, and air pollution. Also, comparing the capacity of a road to the actual count of passengers on transit is useless... either compare the capacity of each, or compare the actual traffic volume of each.

  9. Allen:

    Why would anyone judge the value and efficiency of a system that moves things based on it's per square foot costs? For example, the per sq foot costs of the proposed automated baggage handling system at DIA were low..... on paper. But the system was a mess, cost the airport billions (yes billions) in causing it's opening to be delayed, and never functioned properly (only worked for arrivals).

    That someone would use a completely inappropriate measurement such as cost per sq foot to judge a system designed for moving things in and of itself goes to show they don't know what the hell they're talking about.