Paying for Rail Transit

Paying for Rail Transit

Last week, San Antonio voters overwhelming approved of a measure forbidding the city's transit agency from building any rail transit lines without voter approval. While that seems like a no brainer, opponents contended that it was unfair to single out rail transit for such a measure just because rail cost 50 to 100 times as much as bus transit.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is still trying to decide whether to cancel the $2.5 billion Purple Line (not to mention Baltimore's $3 billion Red Line). Rail supporters were disappointed that he cut tolls on bridges and toll roads, since they figured that any surplus tolls should have gone to their pet project.

Rail supporters are claiming that the evil Cato Institute is leading a major campaign to undermine their plans. In fact, with the exception of the Antiplanner and maybe one other person, no one at Cato has put much thought into the Purple Line, as they are working on such relatively trivial things as reducing conflict in the Mideastimproving health care, and keeping government from watching everything we do.

If Governor Hogan wants to see where the big money is going in the battle over the Purple Line, he need only look at the supporters, which include contractors, construction unions, and developers. Developers want the Purple Line not because they think light rail will stimulate growth but because they think light rail will lead Montgomery County to rezone for higher densities, allowing them to build more housing, which is needed thanks to the fact that nearly half the county is in an agricultural reserve.

Maryland can not only not afford to build the Purple Line, it couldn't afford to maintain it even if the original construction cost were free. That's the only conclusion that can be reached after an examination of the Washington Metro system, which serves the same Maryland communities that would be on the Purple Line. It turns out that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is about to go broke, partly due to incompetence but mainly due to years of inadequate maintenance.

Boston's transit system is under the same kind of stresses, and someone came up with what they thought was the brilliant idea that they could crowd source the funds needed to bring the system up to a state of good repair. Unfortunately, GoFundMe allows people to use its service to raise no more than $300 million, which isn't even enough to pay for one year's worth of maintenance. Despite this setback, they managed to raise all of $1,585 after three months of effort.

As Nate Boroyan at Bostinno suggests, eliminating Boston's $3 billion backlog would require that everyone in MBTA's service district donate $62. Since transit riders would be the main beneficiaries, asking Boston's 300,000 transit commuters to cover the cost would require a donation of $10,000 apiece. Even then, Boston lacks the funds to keep the system in good repair, and it would soon deteriorate once more.

If Governor Hogan really had any surplus funds to spend on transit (which he doesn't), he should spend it on helping to restore the Washington Metro system, not building more rail that the region can't afford to maintain. But even that might not be a good use of public funds. Rail is simply an unsustainable form of passenger transportation.

This piece originally appeared at The Antiplanner.

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