Cooking the Books

The Salt Lake County Council of Governments recently agreed to spend $2.5 billion on rail transit. But a state auditor found that the analysis used to justify the decision contained some errors that, if corrected, would have indicated the money should be spent on roads instead.

The analysis ranked commuter rail as the second-highest priority transportation investment for the county. But when the errors were corrected, it dropped to 19th out of 34.

“So what?” say city and county leaders. They would have spent the money on rail no matter what the analysis found.

Although cost overruns and ridership shortfalls are a problem, planners don’t bother to greatly cook the books in favor of rail transit because they know that politicians will tend to support it no matter how bad the analysis says it is. This is partly because they only hear what they want to hear.

In Denver, an analysis of the East (airport) Corridor found:

                         Cost     Delay Saved
New freeway lanes        $305       61,200
HOV lanes/BRT             337       41,900
Diesel rail               374       29,700
Electric rail             571       30,300

Capital costs in millions, delay saved is annual hours of congestion delay saved by the project. Source: pp. 37-39 of the East Corridor Major Investment Study Final Report.

In other words, new highway lanes or bus-rapid transit both cost less and did more to relieve congestion than either electric or Diesel rail transit. Yet the director of Denver’s transit agency and various Denver-area politicians who claim to have read this study all believe that the study found that rail transit was more cost-effective at relieving congestion than roads.

The only surprising thing to me was that they initially picked Diesel-rail transit, which didn’t waste as much money as electric. Not to worry: under the current plan (which is now estimated to cost over a billion dollars), they are going to build electric rail.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Council is talking about (29-MB PowerPoint show) setting a target of reducing per-capita driving by 10 percent by the year 2030. (This was proposed in a state bill, S.B. 375, which failed to pass this year.) To achieve this, they propose to impose a big enough carbon or other driving tax to double the cost of driving.

They also propose to spend $60 billion of the resulting revenue on rail transit and ferries, a mere $10 billion on HOT lanes & bus-rapid transit, plus $600 million on freeway operations (ramp metering, traffic signal coordination).

Almost as an afterthought, they note that money invested in freeway operations are 15 to 50 times more cost-effective at reducing pollution and congestion than HOT lanes/BRT, while HOT/BRT are 5 to 60 times more cost-effective than rail and ferry.

So why blow so much money on rail transit? Because we don’t want to let any real data get in the way of our preconceived notions.

The presentation adds that road pricing could bring in $34 billion a year — five times as much as they spend on all transportation today. You can almost see the planners salivating at the opportunity to spend all that money on rail transit.

The most cost-effective way to reduce pollution and congestion is to build more roads and to price those roads. In fact, this approach pays for itself — no tax dollars required. But instead of focusing on that, planners want to reduce people’s mobility and blow a bunch of money on ineffective transit projects. I suspect they lose interest in road pricing once they realize that it is incompatible with their goal of reducing per-capita driving.

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31 thoughts on “Cooking the Books

  1. prk166

    I’d have to double check but I don’t think the diesel is by choice. They can’t run LRVs a couple routes because they want to use the same (or nearly the same) right-of-way as freight. And no way do the freight companies want some wimpy, easily shredded cars full of passengers running too close to their trains. I think both the DIA/Airport line and another one, the line up to Boulder if I have things right, have this issue. It’s a case of poor planning from the start. And since they underestimated the initial costs so poorly (even considering construction-inflation), they can’t afford to do anything but the diesel-electric cars on the route.

    What’s entertaining is finding people raising a stink about the diesel. IIRC on The Hub that’s tied in with the Denver Post there was some council member (Westminster?) claiming people where speaking up loud against the diesel and in favor of LRT. I left a nice comment about how that baffles me considering how no one I chat with seems to even know about the issue, let alone care either way. I mention that as an example of how far in la-la land these local government officials can get.

  2. msetty

    As readers of this blog know, I think congestion is hardly the most important transportation problem out there.

    Here is my response to Gabriel Roth’s screed in the Chronicle last week, which incidently included a plug for Randal’s “American Dream Coalition” conference:

    November 1, 2007

    RE: Gabriel Roth’s Op Ed “Soviet style” Road System

    Dear Editor:

    Economist Gabriel Roth is correct in describing U.S. transportation as a “Soviet style” road system. For nearly a century, government at all levels single-mindedly focused on roads to the virtual exclusion of every other alternative. But is Roth’s desired (Milton) “Friedmanist” approach really any better? Just why should we judge the value of transportation projects mainly by “…the amounts road users are prepared to pay for better roads”?

    Congestion reduction is really a relatively trivial concern, since our “Stalinist Roads” approach has resulted in unlivable cities, nearly a century of transit decline, destruction of increasingly valuable farmland and natural areas, a looming threat to national and economic security due to rapidly growing oil imports from unreliable, increasingly unfriendly countries, let alone global warming, the specter of peak oil, and the excessive devotion of our society’s scarce resources to the auto/roadway mega-system. “Free parking” is hardly free, among many other non-free resources devoted to the automobile.

    Economists like Roth and others of the “Friedmanist” bent routinely ignore or pooh-pooh society’s most important concerns. Consigning such blinkered views to “the dustbin of history” is long overdue.

    Michael D. Setty

  3. Veddie Edder

    That “nearly a century” ended about 40 years ago. We haven’t seen substantial road network capacity expansions in 40 years in this country. The age of the builder in cities ended in the early 1970s and has been replaced by an age of ever increasing congestion. Road projects were cancelled, new projects are no longer forthcoming and there has even been the scuttling of existing roads. How’s that working out for you? Chicago. Connecticut. Philly. New York and NJ. Are people really driving less or are they just sitting in traffic longer, living with constrained mobility and reducing their circles of movement? Are people in Norwalk or Naperville dealing with traffic by taking their 4 kids onto a train to get to soccer practice with a stop off at the grocery store, and a side trip to a friend’s house. Or do they sit in traffic and waste time? This state of affairs is not environmentalism, this is contempt for the mobility desires of the common person.

  4. msetty

    This state of affairs is not environmentalism, this is contempt for the mobility desires of the common person.

    No. It’s reality.

    You really need an attitude and political realism checkup. Of course, it’s not like I give a damn about your slanderous views of the ethics underlying my viewpoint, given the lack of intellectual rigor and the utopian “self regulating free market” fantasies of libertarianism. If I insult your sensibilities, GOOD!

    Maintaining the “mobility desires of the common person” is increasingly unsustainable, in the light of global warming and peak oil, among other things, of course which people like you almost always deny across the board. I know it’s “tough” but this country is in for some major changes, not only in the form of how people travel from point A to point B, but also in the wake of the unsustainable economic bubble we’ve gotten ourselves into. Compared to all the other environmental and economic wreckage around us, maintaining “automobility” will be one of our less important problems. Of course, it is the “common person” who always gets screwed in the wake of these sorts of disasters, much like 1929-1941.

    For insight into where I’m coming from, see this site; the site heavily documents the puerile, increasingly disastrous results of “Friedmanism.”

  5. Dan

    There’s also a recent survey out that follows the conclusions of a plethora of other surveys that find the common person, contra assertions here,:

    o doesn’t think building more roads will reduce congestion (pg 9, 10)

    o Business and homes should be built closer together, so that stores and shops are within walking distance and don’t require the use of an automobile. (pg 6)

    o New home construction should be limited in outlying areas and encouraged in very urban areas to shorten commutes and prevent more traffic congestion. (pg 6)

    o the vast majority opposes privatization/selling off of roads (pg 13)

    DS

  6. Builder

    Could it be the results of the above survey are due to the fact that the average person doesn’t have the time or inclination to research transportation issues but has been subjected to the tireless propoganda generated by the smart growth machine?

  7. Dan

    Could it be the results of the above survey are due to the fact that the average person doesn’t have the time or inclination to research transportation issues but has been subjected to the tireless propoganda generated by the smart growth machine?

    Ha. Good ‘un.

    Anyway, no, I suspect it’s because people are tired of hopping in their car for every d*mn thing.

    DS

  8. Veddie Edder

    Thanks msetty, we’re all looking forward to a world in which we are stacked liked ants in apartment complexes and move sparingly, packed liked sardines in government run trains, moving on a government schedule. How supposed free-thinking people can’t recognize that future as a grim one is sincerely beyond me.

  9. msetty

    Veddie Edder:

    You apparently think the only way to a positive future is through continuing to do what the U.S. has been doing for 60 years. Well, we consume 25% of the world’s oil but only have 3% of the reserves. How does continuing on this path REALLY lead to a positive future, considering that we’d have to follow Bush’s plans for endless wars over access to oil, which I don’t think this country has the stomach for??

    Believe it or not, I think what Al Gore wants to do is a positive vision, e.g., building a future economy based on renewable, non-carbon spewing energy sources. But to get there we have to give up some foolish notions, apparently highly cherished by some, such as “the market” by itself will save our hides. Well, not exactly. Actually, if the government adjusts market rules to internalize long-term considerations such as global warming by imposing carbon and other forms of pollution taxes, then Gore’s positive vision can occur since the price of solar, wind and other alternatives to fossil fuels will become cheaper, through the power of the MARKET MECHANISM, not the idea that society should have “the market” as its primary organizing principle.

    Part of Gore’s vision is to eventually shift most taxation onto pollution and natural resources use, taking a bit off the top for energy reserach and infrastructure updates (hopefully some of the funding for the $500-$1,000 billion I think is necessary for electrified freight rail, high speed passenger rail, and electrified rail and bus transit over the next 10-15 years; see this link), with the rest replacing most income and payroll taxes, thus eliminating one of the most-cited obstacles to job creation.

  10. Veddie Edder

    So, in your view, the society in which the average individual is able to own a detached private home with a little green space, and use a car to get around where and when he/she wants to will be supplanted. In its place will be a society where self-determination is replaced by environmentalism, as understood by whoever is in power. Generally, low resource consumption (at least for the non-super wealthy and non-connected elites) will be the prime objective. So, you’ll have a society where people are “stacked liked ants in apartment complexes and move sparingly, packed liked sardines in government run trains, moving on a government schedule.”

    To me, that’s a grim future. I don’t know why anyone would be looking forward to that.

  11. Dan

    To me, that’s a grim future. I don’t know why anyone would be looking forward to that.

    Which straw-filled people look forward to that mischaracterized fear-induced future, I wonder?

    DS

  12. Dan

    You know of anybody like that?

    No.

    Do you have names, examples, evidence, writings, links, tape recordings, scribbles on a napkin that outline this devious, dirty rotten conspiracy against the good people of this country? Specific names, dates of utterance/publication/recording would help clarify this assertion.

    DS

  13. Veddie Edder

    If you are asserting that your goal is not to have people abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living, great. It not, stop being disingenuous, it’s transparent.

  14. Veddie Edder

    You’re asking for evidence that the sky is blue. This is what you want:

    Your goal is to have people abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living.

    QED

  15. Dan

    Your goal is to have people abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living.

    I call BS.

    Please provide the evidence for your assertion. Specific examples where I have said such, evidence where I have said such, writings where I have written such, links, tape recordings, scribbles on a napkin that outline this devious, dirty rotten conspiracy that I wish to foist upon the good people of this country.

    Specifics. Cough them up. Step up. Show what you got. Let’s see something other than nothing.

    DS

  16. Veddie Edder

    This is metaphysical! You want me to prove to you what you think!

    How about this for proof? I posit that:

    your desire is for people to abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living.

    Let’s go on the assumption that your failure to deny the above in your next reply will constitute your assent to the above statement. Voila, metaphysical proof!

  17. Dan

    The assertion was orignally that To me, that’s a grim future. I don’t know why anyone would be looking forward to that, then it was dissembled to Your goal is to have people abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living now it is hand-waved to positing that your desire is for people to abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living.

    Well, I call BS on this too.

    You’ve got nothing but a wish for your received wisdom to be true, dissembling, and hand-waving because you can’t provide evidence.

    DS

  18. Veddie Edder

    I guess your thoughts on this topic will just have to remain a mystery.

    Moving on, can you tell us a little about Haliburton? What about Haliburton, Dan?

  19. prk166

    People are tired of hopping in there car to get every damn thing? Really? I can’t imagine carry my groceries a couple blocks home once a week let alone doing that for a family of 4. Especially when taking the train to and from work adds an extra hour to my commuting. Now there would be the life. 3 hours of commuting + 8-10 hours of work + an hour each day to run one of the errands that I normally can get done in a couple hours in one day. Lovely.

  20. Kevyn Miller

    Eddie, I can’t explain why anybody would want to live in a society where people are “stacked liked ants in apartment complexes and move sparingly, packed liked sardines in government run trains, moving on a government schedule.” But I’m sure most of the people living in London, New York, Paris or Milan could. Your grim future is a reality in the most popular cities on Earth. Admittedly, the only time I have not owned a car was when I lived in Sydney (Oz). That city didn’t get serious about building freeways and sprawling suburbs until the late 1960’s. Till then it had deveoped as a collection of big towns/small cities connected by train and tram lines. Now, growing that way for nearly 200 years has produced a workable city. It is a completely different kettle of fish when planners try to retrofit auto cities with trains and apartments. I believe the y economic factors driving traffic are starting to reverse. Whilst cars may not be getting any more expensive roads and parking are, especially in urban areas where supply and demand are finally pushing land prices beyond the point where it is economic to provide more auto capacity. The extra capacity isn’t needed only in the areas where sprawl is currently happening, it is actually needed as much, if not more so, in the established core of the city. With increasing congestion the land closest to freeways and major arterials has gone from being the least valuable to the most valuable. A catch 22 situation. As congestion has spilled over from freeways and major arterials onto the collector roads in commercial areas businesses have tried to minimise their exposure to the spreading congestion by getting as close to the freeways and major arterials as possible. Thereby driving up land values alongside freeways and major arterials to the point where it is prohibitively expensive to aquire land for route widening. If a city has a dense commercial core and existing rail rights of way then the market economics will gradually begin to favour railling and high rising. Without the dense core the most economic option is satelite CBDs, which is a market driven land use solution.
    I think an effective market driven approach absolutely has to begin by replacing the current ad hoc payments with a simple to administer GPS based system. That way you can incorporate congestion pricing, avoid parking “theft”, and offer a pay per use option for insurance and such like. Make the transport market better informed and you will get better decision making. You might not get the response that Smart Growthers want but then again you might, and it will be the result of informing not of forcing.

  21. Veddie Edder

    I live in NY. Most people in this area live in (relatively) car-friendly suburbs. Next time you’re in my fair city try leaving Manhattan. Or, better yet, walk around Manhattan and see how many school-age kids of middle class parents you find (that aren’t visiting). What people say and do are two different things. People want auto-mobility. I don’t care what they say, I see what they do. Let me know what you spot next time you’re in Queens (where way more people live than Manhattan).

  22. Dan

    People want auto-mobility

    Huh. People living in auto-dependent suburbs want auto-mobility. What next – people in Phoenix want air conditioning? People in Moscow want heat? Sacré bleu!

    The fact that the rich bid up rents to obtain the amenities in dense cities has little to do with the fact that the suburbs have people with cars. Try asking people in the other boroughs if they’d live in Manhattan if they could afford it. With a decent sample size, ~25-45% would likely say they would.

    DS

  23. Veddie Edder

    Dan, people in Manhattan and Queens want auto-mobility too. The rich can afford it Manhattan, people of more modest means can afford it in Queens. Not everyone wants to abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living, just because you want them to.

  24. Dan

    Not everyone wants to abandon cars and single family homes in exchange for rail dependence and apartment living, just because you want them to.

    I don’t recall ever saying I want everyone to do those things you made up. Perhaps you can point out where I did to bolster your assertion.

    Thank you so much in advance.

    DS

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