According to its supporters, Orlando’s commuter-rail line, Sunrail, is a great success. They don’t really say what it is successful at, except that it offers inexpensive rides to students. So inexpensive, in fact, that the fares don’t even cover the cost of the ticket machines. Of course, that leads people to wonder why they even charge for tickets.
The answer, according to Sunrail officials, is that if the rides were free, it would be “wildly or even possibly too popular.” But just how popular is it, anyway? Answer: not hardly at all.
In 2015, according to the National Transit Database, the average number of weekday rides was 3,647. That means fewer than 1,825 round trips. On average, just 22 seats out of the 98 seats per railcar are filled, so I suspect they have room for a few more people if the rides were free.
Since it is supposedly so popular with students, you might be worried that there would be a danger of overloading trains on weekends if the rides were free. Don’t be: the train doesn’t even operate on Saturdays, Sundays, or many holidays. Apparently it doesn’t need to in order to be a “major success.”
In 2015, operations and maintenance cost nearly $39 per passenger trip, while the average fare was $2.21. Add the $361 million in capital costs amortized over 30 years at 3 percent and the subsidy per trip is nearly $56. It would cost significantly less to give every daily round-trip rider a new Toyota Prius every single year for those 30 years. Since the train uses more energy per passenger mile than a Hummer and three times as much as a Prius, the Prius alternative would be better for the environment as well.
More reasonably, I estimate that 25 buses costing about $10 million or so would have been sufficient to provide all the transportation offered by the trains. Bus operating costs would be lower as well, as the train cars are costing 7-1/2 times as much to operate, per mile, as Orlando spends on its transit buses.
This 32-mile commuter line is so successful that they are currently spending another $187 million extending it by 17 miles. The extra riders this attracts, they hope, will increase ticket revenues enough to cover the cost of the ticket machines.
What kind of a dopey world do we live in where paying for the ticket machines becomes the criterion for the success of an expensive infrastructure project? Instead of asking, “why don’t we just give the rides away?” why aren’t people in Orlando saying, “Let’s just shut the money-loser down!”