Are We Getting Anything Out of Transit Spending?

In the 2012 budget, the DOT will spend about $59.4 billion on highways and $30.2 billion on transit and rail (source).   Highways are getting a smaller and smaller portion of what we think of as the Federal highway budget, with transit and rail spending almost 50% the size of highway spending.  For what results?

Despite huge efforts to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles, nearly 8 million more people drove alone to work in 2010 than in 2000, according to data released by the Census Bureau. Wendell Cox’s review of the data show that the other big gainer was “worked at home,” which grew by nearly 2 million over the decade.

Transit gained less than a million, but transit numbers were so small in 2000 that its share grew from 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent of total workers. While drive alone grew from 75.6 percent to 76.5 percent, the big loser was carpooling, which declined by more than 2 million workers. As a result, driving’s share as a whole declined from 87.9 percent to 86.2 percent.

Though they get less money in absolute dollars, transit and rail have for years gotten wildly disproportionate amounts of money compared to their ridership.  This is not an accident of timing -- rail and mass transit costs per passenger mile are simply way higher than for cars in all but a few very specific high-density urban areas.

Much of this Federal spending is a huge waste of money, made worse by the fact that local authorities who get this money have little incentive to use it wisely.  Its time for the Feds to get out of the transit funding business.  If LA wants more subways, let them pay for it.


  1. Roy:

    All one has to do is stand on any expressway overpass in the middle of a weekday and count the number of cars and trucks that go by in any given minute. Then compare it to the number of passengers on any commuter train to see which one moves the most people.

    Then consider that your car takes you right where you want to go when you want to go there.

  2. me:

    Ah... in addition, the spending I see going into the local highways I drive... how do I say this? I wish they wouldn't? It seems that upkeep of the actual driving surface is a low priority compared to moving HOV lanes from left to right and back, installing remotely operated speed limit signs that can lower the speed limit to 40mph in case of a traffic jam (really helpful, I tell you. You can get up your blood pressure by looking at the sign while you're sitting there and not going anywhere. I almost wish they used them for commercials). Also: installing flower pods in city roads. I kid you not. Meanwhile, the traffic situation around here remains as bad as ever, probably a bit for the worse because of all the construction.

  3. Jens Fiederer:

    MORE subways? Shouldn't that be "A" subway? Or has LA built actually built some subway that they can add to since the last time I was there?

    (I know that "more" is perfectly valid mathematically starting from zero, but in ordinary speech "more" entails an existing non-zero structure to build on....and this is not a quibble, this really got me wondering if LA actually has some subway that I have simply never encountered).

  4. a_random_guy:

    As always, the elephant in the room is this: why is the federal government involved in local transit programs?

    Looking at the report, most of the non-highway spending is for projects within metropolitan areas, or else within single states. If it's not in support of interstate transport, the federal government has zero business mixing in.

  5. MJ:


    Yes, LA does have a subway line. It opened 20 years ago and runs under Wilshire Boulevard, going through downtown LA and north to North Hollywood. They have spent $5 billion on it and apparently are now looking to expand it to the west, through Santa Monica.

  6. Sean:

    Speaking of rail travel in LA, the LA Time had an interesting story several month ago about how rail spending is being done at the expense of people on the bus.,0,2808704.story

    The title is “LA transit activists rally for a Federal Probe” and this quote is something I think the Coyote Blog's author could have written, “The union and several other activist groups at what was billed as a "transit justice town hall," accused the county transportation agency of hurting poor riders by aggressively pursuing new rail projects while slashing bus service.”

  7. DrTorch:

    Transit spending disgusts me. It's counterproductive for everyone, except for the few employees who make big salaries.

    It certainly has helped hollow out middle America.

  8. Anonymous Mike:

    I remember about 6 years ago having coffee with a local official - right by the pedestrian underpass between the Esplanade and Biltmore which is a story for another day - discussing why the Phoenix light rail system was being built.


    "Because that's what the feds are funding"

    So fed funding of mass transit is a racket worthy of RICO:

    1) To local officials Fed money is not only "free" in the sense it doesn't directly come out of local pockets but the same officials can then claim credit for being wise stewards of local tax dollars. To top it they can then claim to be building a "world-class" city

    2) To your congressman, he gets credit for bringing home the tax money. Ed Pastor has built a career on bringing home his constiteunts' tax money - see the transit center in downtown Phoenix named after him

    3) The taxpayers are the one's who get hammered - they send their money to the feds and eventually they get to spend it on strictly local projects only after the feds and the various in-betweens take a cut.

    So why not have the money just raised locally if that is where it's going to be spent. Because then we wouldn't have jobs for people like Ed Pastor... too many people benefit from the racket and for the average tax payer it's often too little to care about (the sine qua non of any good racket)

    Btw if you look at the 1/2 cent Maricopa transit tax you see the same trend. The original tax paid for a county-wide freeway system. After the system was built the tax was extended to build all sorts of projects best funded by cities like "arterial streets" - why a resident in Chandler has to pay for upkeep of 51st Avenue in Glendale is beyond me but taxpayers were used to paying the tax so rather than just letting it expire the amount of work increased to spend those dollars

  9. sowell:

    If you've listened to debates in the house or senate in the last few months you've heard building bridges (the literal kind) mentioned over and over probably in the top handful of things mentioned government should be spending money on. Yet I suspect that maybe less than 1 billion of 3,600 billion in federal spending goes to building bridges.

  10. Danny:

    The problem isn't is our implementation of transit. There are plenty of public transportation systems that have low costs, some of them even making a handsome profit. The Tokyo Metro is more profitable than the Fortune 500 that I currently work for. The operating margins on the Calgary CTrain (Calgary being not entirely different in character to a city like Pittsburgh or Philly) are about 80% of revenues.

    The difference is that in these systems, they are operated with an emphasis on productivity. That word doesn't exist in the vocabularies of American government entities, whether local, regional, state, or federal. Our transit systems are nothing more than a shell corporation-like entity that covers up a massive giveaway to unions.

  11. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    >>> If LA wants more subways, let them pay for it.

    Give it time, you'll change your tune.

    Sooner or later, you'll be saying "If the Nevada Desert needs more subways, let Nevada pay for it."

    Mark my words.

  12. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    >> Yes, LA does have a subway line. It opened 20 years ago and runs under Wilshire Boulevard, going through downtown LA and north to North Hollywood. They have spent $5 billion on it and apparently are now looking to expand it to the west, through Santa Monica.

    Isn't that the one they tore down Schwab's Drugstore to build? Cripes, you want a national historic structure on the West coast, that would have been one. :-/

  13. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    >>> Ed Pastor has built a career on bringing home his constituents’ tax money

    Ah, wouldn't that be other constituents’ tax money??

  14. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    >>> so rather than just letting it expire the amount of work increased to spend those dollars

    This is why I have an operating principle of NEVER voting to increase government revenue on ANY level, no matter what the justifications are or how the money will be spent, even if it requires a vote from the people to extend it. Once they get their hands on the public's money, it's like taking a bone away from a starving dog to get it back.

    >> The problem isn’t transit…it is our implementation of transit.
    While it could certainly stand improvement in this area, I disagree with you on the whole. Japan has a much, much higher population density than the USA almost everywhere.

    Tokyo's population density is 15,610.4/sq mi. The USA only has four metro areas which exceed that: New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, & Boston. So those are the only areas where you could expect Mass transit to succeed as it has in Tokyo. There are a few more areas where the density does equal or exceed that, but for the most part it's only in a small, limited "downtown" area where the density is high enough: Louisville, San Francisco, Providence, Chicago -- and only SF and Chicago really belong under consideration for Mass Transit.

    Additionally, unlike the Japanese, Americans have a strong sense of individual mobility as being a part of their birthright. In the USA, EVERY sixteen year old considers it highly desirable that they should now have a car of their own. It's a mark of adulthood and independence. I don't know that's NOT true for the Japanese, but I suspect it's not.

    Further, Japan's overall population density is 10x what that of the USA is, and even that's not a fully accurate depiction, since most of Japan's livable area is along the coastlines. While the USA, like any maritime nation, does have an increased population density along the coasts, it makes much more extensive use of the interior it has than Japan does. And population density is one of those things which provides sufficient counterbalance to the freedom that a car provides vs. the "convenience" of mass transit -- if it's dense enough, then it does pay to provide a much wider and "smaller incremented" services (i.e., buses every 15 minutes instead of once every 30). OTOH, the density creates more traffic issues and parking problems for the auto user/owner.

    So issues with mass transit are inversely proportional to density, while issues with autos increase proportionally with density.

    So there are about 4-6 areas in the USA where Mass Transit has any hope of success. All the rest will fail, and fail dismally.

  15. Danny:

    Umm...Calgary isn't in Japan...and its density is on the level of San Jose, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, or San Diego. And yet they still have a profitable transit system. In fact, if Density were the only factor to consider to determine the potential profitability of a system, Calgary's experience would mean that we have about 50 cities in the US with fantastic potential for profitability.

    But either way, I was never suggesting that we build Subway systems in Idaho. I'm just saying that our problem with the public transportation systems we have is our implementation. The New York City Subway could be just as profitable, if not more so, than the Tokyo Subway. But it is the is a money drain on the order of several billion per year.

    Density is FAR less of a factor in profitability than productivity.

  16. Will:

    I agree with the Brookings institute report that's linked in the article, it would cost a lot of money to get a significant number of people within a 45 minute commute of their work via transit.

    LA is a sprawly mess that can't be covered by transit very well, this isn't a problem with transit perse. It's a probablem with how the city was laid out and developed.

    That being said there are still many cities with efficient and cost effective transit systems, Torontos GO trains have a cost recovery of 80%. If you count the increased congestion that would resultif you forced them off public transit and on to the roads, the 20% subsidy saves money.

  17. MJ:


    Do you have a source for the claim that Calgary's system is profitable? I've never heard them suggest this (publicly, at least).

  18. MJ:


    That's not an idle threat. 15 years ago, bus riders in LA filed a class-action suit against the LACMTA alleging unequal treatment. The LACMTA was collecting a sales tax which was originally passed to pay for the construction of a regional rail network. During the early 1990s, the LA County Commission passed a law which banned the use of sales tax funds for further rail expansion, after the problems and cost overruns with the original subway segment. The MTA responded by using the sales tax funds to subsidize its bus operations and using its bus fare revenues to pay for its rail projects. All this while LA had some of the most crowded buses in the country. There was a consent decree which ended the case, requiring the MTA to add buses to reduce overcrowding, albeit only for a limited period of time. The decree has since ended, and I'm wondering if the MTA may again be inviting a lawsuit with its current actions. We'll see.

  19. DrTorch:

    " If you count the increased congestion that would resultif you forced them off public transit and on to the roads, the 20% subsidy saves money."

    Not necessarily true. You assume that people wouldn't respond to reduced transit, perhaps by telecommuting or moving away. Or even privately run vanpools.

    Mass transit is a hinderance to progress, to genuine solutions. It maintains the uncomfortable status quo.

  20. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    >>> "Umm…Calgary isn’t in Japan…and its density is...

    I was dealing with this comment, thanks for trying to ignore it. But no, not letting you off the hook:
    "The Tokyo Metro is more profitable than the Fortune 500 that I currently work for. "

    And as far as this:
    "(Calgary being not entirely different in character to a city like Pittsburgh or Philly)"

    LOLZ, you're Canucks. There is a whole host of differences in national attitudes between us. So yeah, there's a huge difference in underlying character, and I believe they would be sufficient to explain the difference of why Calgary can be profitable and an American city the same size is unlikely to be. No, I can't prove that. But you've got to prove your assertion** first, and I consider that unlikely. And yes, that same difference in attitudes is applicable to Japan, too, it's just not needed as a central reason for the difference in profitability.


    ** That the Calgary system is profitable when you remove all government subsidization. I haven't investigated, but I am willing to bet that it is heavily subsidized by local, provincial, and national government. You've made a claim, but I see no numbers or links. It's kind of like when I hear a Canadian saying that they never wait for health care in their system, yet it's literally trivial to find evidence otherwise, including the concrete numbers of substantial cross-border treatment of Canadians in US States near the Canadian border.

    >>> Density is FAR less of a factor in profitability than productivity.
    No, it's not. Because you can't get Americans to WANT to use the system without running a lot of non-profitable routes if there is no density. I live in a very liberal college town. We have a fairly extensive bus system, which is heavily subsidized by the Student Government (to the tune of 10 million or more a year) of the University.

    Despite having a much more extensive network than MOST towns this size would ever have, excluding a very few routes, it takes not less than an hour from the time you get out your door to the time you get to your destination by bus. 90 minutes or more if you need to make a transfer, and you often do. The same trip in a car is generally less than 20 minutes, 35 during rush hour (which does not affect the bus a lot). So anyone who uses the bus is wasting a LOT of their time. Who the hell wants to waste as much as two hours of their life EVERY DAY riding the bus?

    Further, I happen to know someone who is a mechanic in the Transit motor pool. He tells me they have about 2/3rds the number of repair bays needed, and, on top of that, about 2/3rds the number of buses they ought to be running, and, as a result, they are basically running the buses into the ground much faster than they would be if they were getting enough maintenance -- so, despite the fact that the bus system is heavily subsidized by not just the local, state, and federal governments, they're also subsidized by the student government -- and STILL they aren't making enough money to do basic levels of preventative maintenance. The net result is that service quality is certain to go down substantially in the future without a massive cash infusion from somewhere for new buses, as the buses become more and more unreliable.

    Unless the conditions exist where the time spent using the bus to go from A to B and back again are within a reasonable percentage of that of driving your car, there is no rational individual who wants to ride the bus. In very high density areas, the traffic is bad enough that this can be true. It's not so outside of those few very high density areas.

    If those in Calgary have another justification for riding the bus, I'm open to hearing it. Otherwise, I have to assume the typical "Calgaryite"(sp?) just hasn't figured out the above fact regarding effective time management. Since liberals are much more prevalent in Canada (yet another difference between the USA and Canada), this does not surprise. They're a lot more likely to be enamored of the idea of mass transit without considering the personal economics of it.

    Density drives profitability more than anything else by vastly increasing the number of routes you can have which have sufficient ridership to make money or at least not lose money, and that heterodynes with ridership by making riding the bus more time-efficient. If a bus ran by my house every 10 minutes and along the connecting route every 10 minutes, then that 90 minutes one way would be cut by 20-to-30-odd minutes. It would only have 3 people on it most of the day, since the density is too low... So it's not going to be profitable, in the least.

  21. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    >>> ...The City of Calgary adopted a policy that limited the amount and location of downtown parking...

    So, basically, the Calgary city government decided to deliberately push people onto buses by overtly increasing the disadvantages of car usage. I have personal objections to this kind of crap. It's nanny state decision-making at its finest.

    >>> Most roadways are crossed at-grade with LRT receiving priority and protection using traffic signals, gates, flashing lights and bells.

    Yet another deliberately preferential choice made by the government to increase the disadvantage of car usage.

    >>> Average station spacing is 1.5 to 2 kilometres (1 to 1.5 miles) to minimize stops, travel time and infrastructure.

    ... while increasing average walking distance to a station, thereby requiring considerably more personal time usage to get to a station. This is one of those things that some people never consider in a personal cost analysis regarding the effectiveness of mass transit.

    >>> A free fare zone along the transit mall heightens the attractiveness of the system for short trips and provides a key service to support downtown businesses.

    Hrmm, so... what percentage of these freeloaders are a part of the "Daily ridership now exceeds 220,000 averaging over 600 boardings per operating hour"??

    >>> Transit security personnel (Protective Services) conduct random fare inspections and provide passenger and facility security. Fare evasion rates are audited each year and are generally less than 2 percent.

    This would never work in the USA. We have too many self-entitled freeloaders. Just look at the OWS crowd. As soon as a chuck of people realized they could get away with it, you'd need to have a lot more verification personnel. We also have a lot more bums and homeless types. I'm also curious about the incidence level of vandalism, which is often high for public infrastructure in the USA. Even assuming it's low in Calgary/Canada, it's not so here, and that would raise operating costs both for repairs/maintenance, but also for security personnel to discourage such.

    >>> vehicles are not air conditioned,

    Yeah, that'll go over well south of the border with people sitting in tin cans under 90 degree heat from 3-9 months out of the year. You can always keep your coat on, but stripping down to your skivvies in a 110 degree tin convection oven is frowned upon.

    Summary note:
    Y'know, the one thing that the whole thing actually lacks is a real balance sheet for the current time (No,Table 1 doesn't cut it):
    a) How much money did the *city* kick in to build the thing in the first place? The province? The national government?
    b) How much does it kick in each year?
    c) What are its yearly operating expenses?
    d) Does it have any long-term projected expenses it will need which are not covered as a part of that yearly operating expense (i.e., new cars, station refurbishments, and the like)?
    e) Equally missing -- What is its total yearly revenue??

    Q.E.D. This report is utterly inadequate to claim that it's even operating at a profit, much less that it's a good example of efficient/effective mass transit in a smaller city. And then you have to deal with the differences between an American ridership and a Canadian one.

  22. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    BTW, I'd lay odds that, if, instead of promoting mass transit, the local government paid businesses to spread out their "day begins" time over a wider timeframe (thereby substantially lowering peak road loads) -- say, from 7am to 10am depending on the business, etc., and/or encourage employee "flex-time", where the employee has some control over their arrival/departure time within an hour or two span, the result would be far more effective at reducing congestion than mass transit.

  23. Nick:

    For over 20 years I rode an express bus to San Francisco from the Peninsula. It was wonderful. When it was cancelled I began to write a letter in support of the bus but gave up sheepishly. From what I could tell from the financials other people were paying at least $9 a day and probably much more for my ride. It was not justifiable for me to be subsidized by my fellow citizens. (It was also amusing to have people congratulate me for using mass transit. They got to pay my way and I was a good person in their eyes. Heck, it was a no-brainer given the cost and the convenience.)

    I now ride BART and each day watch the system deteriorate as infrastructure and labor costs outpace the maintenance needs of the system. If the numerous BART workers I encounter were working their tails off I might have some sympathy but their efforts are desultory at best.

    This will not end well since, to quote Herb Stein, "Something that can't go on, won't."

  24. Anna:

    Seattle's not even getting transit, it's getting transit planning. In this city, car taxes are the new tobacco tax -- a new ballot measure would tax city drivers and use more than two-thirds of the money to pay for transit, bike lanes and pedestrian projects. Just 30% for a huge backlog of road and bridge maintenance.

  25. markm:

    A couple of weeks ago, IgotBupkis posted this over on Popehat:
    Civilization advances by increasing the number of important things we can do without thinking about them.

    Really. It’s pretty much that simple. Indoor plumbing is an advance — we don’t have to think about going outside in the cold or heat, don’t have to worry about smell or disease, don’t have to worry (usually) about “turning it over”, don’t have to worry about spiders.

    Sliced bread is an advance. We just reach into the bin, grab a couple slices, and boom, we’ve got a sandwich or toast.

    Mass Transit, however, is NOT and advance (it may be necessary — but it’s not an advance). You have to worry about whether a bus goes where you need to go, you have to worry about when it arrives at the nearest stop, where that stop is, what the nearest stop is to your destination, how much crap you’ll have to carry to the stop or away from the stop, do you need a transfer?, will the buses STILL be running when you want to come back, and so forth and so on, ad infinitem. (My own personal experience is that, where I live, a 40 minute round trip in a car is at least 90 minutes minimum).

    And THIS is why people reject Mass Transit where given both the choice and a rational situation for using an auto, and will ALWAYS do so if the Nanny State doesn’t ram it down our throats.

    IgotBupkis forgot one situation where mass transit could make sense: when finding parking near your destination is more complicated than using mass transit. But I suspect that parking garages are much less expensive than subways, so such parking shortages occur only in city centers that developed before the 1930's, or where parking has been restricted by fiat in favor of mass transit.