Light Rail Transit Monster

The Transit Monster has been beaten back into its cave this last election, but don’t think that it will not come out again. In typical Tucson fashion, our citizens are hard at work trying to reproduce the mistakes of other cities instead of developing new, creative, and efficient transportation solutions.

As you will recall, the Monster’s last incarnation was ballot propositions 200 and 201, created and promoted by the group Citizens for a Sensible Transportation Solution (CFASTS). The transportation plan (Prop 200) is a well designed, comprehensive, transportation improvement plan, the centerpiece of which is a thirteen mile “Light Rail” system to run along Broadway and South 6th Avenue. The funding will come primarily from the federal government (cross your fingers), with the remainder to be paid by funds from a new city sales tax, and an increase in the construction contractor tax (Prop 201).

Let’s look at some history. At the end of World War II, most transit systems were privately owned, and carried 50 percent of urban traffic. In the early 1960’s, the federal government began subsidizing city owned transit systems. At the same time, the increased prosperity of the post war era lead not only to a “chicken in every pot”, but also a car in every garage. The average American had point to point transportation on demand. This vastly changed the development of places like Tucson from small towns to cities. The people voted with their purchasing power: automobiles won, transit lost. Unconstrained by this reality, the Federal Government continued to subsidize transit based on the antiquated model of a downtown hub supporting radiating transit routes. In an effort to curb steadily decreasing ridership, government agencies, central planners, Smart Growthers, etc., saw sexy buses as a solution and “Light Rail Systems”, or “trolleys” as they were called at the time of their invention in the 19th century, became a nationwide transit fad.

Cities as diverse as Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Tacoma, Dallas, and Miami have built trolleys. CFASTS, and other trolley promoting organizations, have professionally built websites that list the myriad benefits that trolleys bring to their communities. CFASTS website lists increased property values along trolley corridors, increased transit ridership, improved community image, incresed income levels, zero pollution, and the elimination of hate crimes and childhood diseases (just kidding with the last one) as examples of some of those benefits. The website is very well done and can be viewed at www.savetucson.org.

Up the road in Chandler, however, John Semmens, an analyst for the Laissez Faire Institute has a different perspective:

“There isn’t a single light rail transit system in America in which fares paid by passengers cover the cost of their own rides. The aggregate deficit for 2000 (the latest year for which complete data are available) was more than a billion dollars. The average cost per passenger mile is around $1.20. These costs are far higher than the average cost per bus passenger mile of about seventy-five cents. Of course, no transit option matches the average cost of automobile transportation, which is about thirty-four cents per vehicle mile.

“Light rail is touted as a means of reducing urban traffic congestion. The claim is that it will lure drivers out of their cars and, thereby, reduce traffic congestion. If all of the light rail passengers would have otherwise been driving their own cars, light rail would, on average, be removing three cars in 1,000 from the roads. However, studies have shown that about 80% of new light rail passengers were former bus passengers. Taking this into account, the real impact on traffic is for light rail to remove less than one car in 1,000 from traffic.”

I recall a conversation that I had with a prominent Tucsonan. Her thinking was that since bus fares only paid for thirty per cent of the operating expenses, they could be eliminated to promote ridership. She envisioned thousands of new riders taking the bus, and then she added, “Of course I can’t, because I have to take the kids to their music lessons and soccer practices after school, and sometimes I have to…….” At that point, it dawned on me: She sincerely wanted transit services, but for other people. Do we not all share this view? Be honest!

Tucsonans, like most Americans, have chosen the car. In fact, point-to-point transportation on demand is necessary to maintain our standard of living. Forget the idea of shifting people from cars to trolleys, and abandon huge federally subsidized projects that depend on doing so to be worthwhile. If the City of Tucson would remove protectionist barriers that create monopolies for public transit and taxi companies, entrepreneurial creativity would generate a large number of diverse transportation options for our people. It would work, but, alas, it would not be very sexy.

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