In California, they have the wonderful light rail transit that so many County Commissioners and central planners in Indiana drool over. Some of them at the same time think of themselves as 'fiscal conservatives'.
Nowhere does light rail make a profit. In fact, nowhere does light rail break even. The closest to break even is NYC's MTA, which recoups about 50% of its operating budget via fares, advertising, and other revenue. The rest is tax money. Indianapolis' IndyGo recoups about 20% of its' operating budget via fares. The rest is a transfer of wealth from taxpayers. Fiscal conservatives should run screaming from light rail faster than from virtually any other conceivable project.
President Obama's light rail showcase is in California. Tim Cavanaugh has some interesting takes of the whole phenomenon of light rail funding, "budgeting", and dreaminess.
The project is a high-decibel example of the magical thinking that takes hold when people talk about trains. A few years ago, when the rail bonds were being debated, I participated in the quaint ritual of an editorial board meeting at the Los Angeles Times in which we debated how to “weigh in” on this critical issue. While I, the team’s only mass transit rider, had the handicap of knowing what I was talking about, I was nonetheless pleased at the group’s readiness to acknowledge that the high-speed rail project offered only anemic ridership levels, endless subsidies, and a strong likelihood of never happening. But in the end, of course, we ran with an editorial titled “Believe in the Bullet Train.” The piece complained that “critics…base their arguments on the past, not the future.”
Here's the part that reminds me most of Indiana. The Metropolitan Planning Organization has been talking about this light rail boondoggle for the eight years I've lived in Indiana. While I am eternally grateful that it hasn't been built, nor does the bugger go away. From Cavanaugh:
Finally, the bullet train is a case study in the immortality of a bad idea. While the train itself may never become a reality, sheer political will makes the train project impossible to kill. “The project has been fighting every year to stay alive,” says Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a watchdog group that supports a rail project in principle but is critical of the Authority. “So they did what they had to do to stay alive, because that’s better than being dead.”As ever, The Simpsons' "Monorail" episode is instructive.
After 14 years of no life signs, how can you tell the difference? Amtrak used to try and lure riders with the slogan “There’s Something About a Train That’s Magic.” In reality, we know that magical trains exist only in cartoons.