Thursday, November 10, 2011

Incoming! Boondoggle!

Portland Oregon's light rail is routinely held up as the prime example of a delightfully working urban passenger rail system. I always find it worthwhile to look at the financial reports put out by the operators, just to see how wonderfully they work.

In the case of Portland, the operating budget shakes out like this for 2011 (Their fiscal year ends June 30):

24% of its operating budget came from passenger fares
8% from other transportation revenues
68% came from a variety of subsidies

Info from TriMet's website and balance sheet.

That's just to say that it doesn't work. They show you that with plain facts on their own site. It has nothing to do with the perspective that it's wrong besides. The transfer of wealth from those who don't ride to those who do is unjust.

Indy's newly re-elected Republican Mayor Greg Ballard wants to repeat this mistake.


Greg Purvis said...

Mike, before you jump to too many conclusions about light rail, perhaps you should look at what is spent on road and highway construction, which is a form of subsidy for auto transportation. I suspect the road construction budget would dwarf the rail subsidy by several orders of magnitude.

Mike Kole said...

It's interesting. I get this kind of reaction from time to time, and I don't get how it is germaine.

I'm opposed to subsidized transportation, regardless of mode. I would like to see the subsidies come off of highways, airlines, and rails. So, I don't understand the logic in saying in effect, "You oppose subsidies to this mode? But the others are more highly subsidized, so you shouldn't mind this one."

I oppose the others. I know how hard it is to remove a subsidy once it is installed. That's why I've been arguing against building light rail in Indy. I don't want it to ever start.

There is something that makes the highways very different from light rail. All of us either use the highway, or consume products shipped on the highway, while less than 1% of us would use the light rail. Mass transit is the 1%!

And, for what it's worth, I've been opposed to this project for the eight years I've been aware of proposals, and have about 50 posts opposing light rail over that time. It's hardly jumping to conclusions.

Greg Purvis said...

Mike, are you saying that you are opposed to government building roads? That would be consistent with some of the libertarian rhetoric I see, I just want to make sure I understand your position, not trying to start an argument.

Support for mass transit in Central Indiana has a lot of Republican and Democratic support, the big hurdle is of course, funding, so I am interested in why you think it is not necessary, other than the desire to see government do as little as possible.

Mike Kole said...

I do not believe mass transit is necessary. We're talking something that would serve less than 1% of the population.

It's a gigantic transfer of wealth- now tagged at over $2.5 billion just to build, never mind to operate.

On this basis, I would hope liberals would oppose it! The light is clearly seen when the benefitting contractor is named 'Halliburton', and the projects are road on the other side of the planet.

I don't tend to shade things. It's either right or it's wrong. But for those who do shade things- isn't that quite a thing? $2.5 billion out of the hands of people who will never use it? Isn't there even the slightest notion that maybe this is kinda sorta unjust? To me, it's completely unjust.

Greg Purvis said...

I don't know that I agree that it is unnecessary, or that I agree with your assumption that it would only be used by 1% of the population. Having used mass transit many places in the US and Europe, I find it a very efficient way to get around. I would use it from time to time in the Indy metro area myself, and I certainly can afford a car and gas. But the hassle of increasingly bad traffic and spending hundreds of millions in constantly working on highways makes me consider it.

Mike Kole said...

The numbers come from the Metropolitan Planning Organization. They claimed that on the best days, the rail line (not a system- just a line) would take up to 4% of cars off I-69, but on most days, more like 2%. This has nothing to do with the cars that use I-65, I-74, I-70, or most of I-465.

I use transit when I travel also. I just took Amtrak last week, but that's a different animal. I love taking NYC's MTA trains. (Search this blog for a handful of entries about that, too.) But even in NYC, the fares still only make just under half of the operating budget, with the rest being subsidies. This is the best, most used system we have in the USA, where all of the conditions are right to make people want to use it: walking city, comprehensive rail and bus system and cabs already in place, extremely high density, driving a liability due to high insurance costs, lack of available parking, and high parking costs, plus risk of vandalism & theft. And still, it doesn't even come close to paying for itself.

Conversely, Indy has none of these things. Indy is not a walking city. It is not dense. There is an exceptionally weak bus system, and no other rail, very weak cab presence. There is plentiful parking available, and it's cheap. The insurance is relatively inexpensive. The risk of vandalism & theft is relatively low.

Believe me, Greg. I'm not jumping to conclusions on this. I actually really, really like trains. I go far out of my way to ride them.

As public policy goes, I think the best thing we could do is to make the conditions in the city such that it was more desirable to people of means. The schools are horrible, for starters. I've always thought of sprawl as a reaction against the policies of cities. Truly- Carmel and Fishers would be much less populated than they are now if young families with means thought IPS schools were worth them staying in the city. A lot of other things follow- including traffic woes.

Anyhow- just because I like trains doesn't mean I think the public should provide them for me. And, consider my wife. She works out of Methodist hospital- a major Indy employer. There is no way whatsoever she would ride it, even though we live in walking distance (1 mile) from the train station. This is because the train would stop at Union Station. Ok, so how does she get from Union Station to Methodist? That's another 2.25 mile walk. Now she's up to an extra 1.5 hours of walking time to and from stations- which is longer than her commute drives, and she still hasn't boarded the trains.

So, the one segment of light rail build is just the tip of the iceburg. This is why I call it a boondoggle. Soon enough, people will discover exactly the uselessness of a single line, and they will then clamor for more rail lines to make a system, and more bus lines.

Mike Kole said...

Now, I'll repeat that I think government operated light rail is wrong. If a private operator wants to undertake it, at private risk, fine!

But, if numbers can help sway folks against, I'll provide the numbers. Let's look more at Portland, the great shining example.

MAX claims to have 126,800 weekly boardings. 1 rider will board at least 2 times a day- going to and coming back. Some will board 4 times a day, for connections. But hey- let's leave that aside. If we most generously divide the weekly boardings by five days (instead of seven), on the assumption that most boardings occur outside the weekend, that yields 25,360 boardings a day. That could mean 12,680 riders/day (at two boardings), 6,340 riders/day (at 4 boardings), or somewhere in between. Round up and call it 10,000 riders/day. There is a suburban branch, WES, that only had 1,450 weekly boardings.

As of the 2010 Census, the city of Portland has a population of 583,776. That's less than 2% of the population riding. It gets closer to 1% if we include the weekends. If I include the suburban numbers, and the WES numbers, it will crush the percentages down to less than 1% of the population using the train.

Interestingly, there is a reference to 12.6% of all Portland commutes being by light rail. Well, the numbers don't seem to square. Are Portland residents, who seem to be proud of their line over reporting their use? Is Portland's transit system under reporting ridership? Who knows.

Portland ranks as the 12th most walkable US city. Indy? 63rd. The point? They brag on Portland's system, but it appears to me to be a money losing, under-used, over-valued item. In conditions more favorable to the use of light rail. How then could Indy's do better?