The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.



  1. Pinebluff:

    Is it middle class pressure or urban planners thinking they can sucker in the middle class with trains?

  2. kidmugsy:

    Aw cheer up! Where we live our County Council has plumped for the worst of both worlds.

    Mind you, it may be economic madness but it's a delight to use. Wonderful views from the top deck as you rush through the countryside.

  3. MingoV:

    The left-wingers (I refuse to call them progressives.) always claim to be helping the poor and down-trodden while siphoning-off benefits for themselves. Left-wing train riders feel smug because their mass transit commuting helps save the environment (but it doesn't).

  4. Canvasback:

    The barf inducing buzz-word in our city is "Smart-Growth." Using Smart-Growth techniques they've turned the business district into a wanna-be Melrose Avenue. The new fees crushed long time businesses and now we have a high churn rate for start-up retail. They installed solar powered parking meters that discourage locals from shopping downtown. They dropped $10 million on a neo-modern concrete apartment building to encourage "artists" to move here. It's not working. The homeless/beggar population is still growing. Grease, tattoos and dog links litter the landscape. After walking Main street to visit the thriving collection of non-profit thrift stores, I feel like taking a shower.

  5. rst1317:

    As to why some groups favor rail transit, I would point out that's often times the equipment is newer. In 1920s through the 50s and 60s, people viewed buses in the same way. They favored them over trolleys and rail transit. It may seem odd but to me seems pretty obvious. The equipment was not only new but more comfortable to ride. Think air conditioning, comfy seats, heating and such compared to 40 year old trolley cars. For example, picture what it was like to ride an open air trolley car in New England for more than half the year. Despite exposing riders to the elements, those open air cars commonly ran right up to the end of the lines.