Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, Scott Barton

Traffic congestion is getting worse and transit is not helping.

Analysis of 2000 Census data by Randall OToole of the Thoreau Institute (www.ti.org) reveals that Americans are turning away from transit and increasingly using automobiles to satisfy their mobility needs.  Between 1990 and 2000, passenger-miles traveled by car increased 30% nationwide, while transit increased only 16.1%.  This means that the $70 billion spent on new transit systems did nothing to help traffic congestion.

In Denver, highway use increased 39 times more than transit use.  If the current plan to divert nearly 60% of transportation funding to transit over the next 20 years is not reconsidered, mobility in Colorado will suffer greatly.

Nationwide, transit continues to carry a small portion of all trips.  On average, transit carries 2% of all urban travel.  In Denver, transit commands 1.4% of the market, and only 4.3% of all commuters.

Transits greatest benefits are for commuters, but auto use by commuters has outpaced transit.  Nationally, the number of commuters riding transit to work declined.  However, the number of American jobs has grown by 13 million, an increase of 11%.  These new commuters are not using transit to get to work, which means transit isnt relieving rush-hour congestion.  Flextime and telecommuting that cost taxpayers nothing yield more traffic congestion relief than the massive expenditures for transit.

Despite low performance, transit is well funded.  In the last nine years, transit agencies nationwide have spent $70 billion dollars on capital projects and $186 billion for operating expenses, but collected only $72 billion in fares.  Thus, transit seems doomed to never ending dependence on heavy taxpayer subsidies.

Transit advocates point to the amount of non-user based fees spent for auto travel, as logic that others should pay their travel.  In 2000, roads and transit received subsidies of $22.4 billion and $23.5 billion respectively.  But passenger-miles traveled on transit are about one percent as much as by auto.  Therefore, subsidies per passenger-mile are one hundred times greater for transit than for auto users!

Moreover, transit worker productivity has declined as much as 19% since 1990.  This decrease in output is primarily the result of diminishing transit use.  As transit agencies gain more funding, taxpayers and users get less for their dollars.

Despite the apparent failure of transit in general, one type shines through as a clear loser: light rail.  In 2000, light rail used 10.9% of capital funding, but carried only 2.8 % of transit riders.  Thats 2.8% of transits 2.5%, or 0.07% of all trips.

Over the last decade, the trend is even more apparent.  Since 1992, transit agencies have spent twice as much on rail as buses, yet buses continue to carry the vast majority of transit trips.  Even though transit agencies throw money at light rail, it remains an inconsequential part of transit service.

Rail also under-performs at the fare box.  The average bus fare is 77 cents, but the average light rail fare is 57 cents.  Does this mean that light rail fares must be lower to attract users or that agencies have exaggerated ridership?  In either case, light rail’s low fares and high expenses result in the need for greater subsidies.  Light rail requires 2.5 times as much subsidy as buses per user and 250 times as much as autos.

Light rail fails because it cannot be targeted to a particular type of urban area.  In high-density cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston, heavy-rail and commuter-rail systems work more efficiently than light rail, and buses work better everywhere else.

With the release of Census data, there isnt much for transit advocates to celebrate.  Transit continues to occupy an extremely small role and even where transit has grown, its numbers are dwarfed by the growth in highway use.  Transit is grossly over funded and hugely subsidized, even as worker productivity declines.

Over the last 2 decades virtually every aspect of American society has been pressed to provide more service at less cost.  The 2000 Census reveals that transit is isolated from this trend.  Transit agencies spend disproportionate and shocking amounts of money on obsolete technologies like light rail, without realizing that the current central-control approach is incapable of significantly helping to solve transportation problems.

The sooner policy makers come to grips with the difficult and unfortunate reality of failing transit, the sooner policies that improve mobility and reduce costs can be embraced.


Copyright 2002, Independence Institute

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.

DENNIS POLHILL is a Senior Fellow at the Institute.

SCOTT BARTON is a summer intern at the Institute.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES on this subject can be found at:  www.i2i.org/centers/transportation

NOTHING WRITTEN here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

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